It may not exactly be all defense all the time, but defense surely is on the Mattituck Tuckers’ minds a lot these days.
If it sounds as if coach Paul Ellwood is playing the same record over and over again during his high school boys basketball team’s preseason practices, there’s a reason for it. He is emphasizing defense perhaps more than ever.
“I told the guys, ‘You’re pretty much only going to hear me talk about defense until our first game because it’s just going to be a team effort,’ ” he said.
Defense and rebounding will be critical to how well Mattituck does this season. No surprises there.
The Tuckers, who went 10-9 last season, losing to Wyandanch in a Suffolk County Class B outbracket game, have already shown that they can shoot. As a team they averaged 68 points per game last season with their uptempo style. They were a genuine threat from beyond the perimeter. Chris Dwyer and Will Gildersleeve led League VII in 3-point baskets last season with 40 each. Joe Tardif (27) and Parker Tuthill (25) were also among the league’s top seven in that category.
What the Tuckers lost in Gene Allen, a two-time all-conference player, they hope to make up for in their guard play. With Allen’s graduation, the Tuckers say goodbye to 15.8 points and 13 rebounds per game. He was League VII’s top rebounder.
Ellwood said, “I’m going to miss Gene’s leadership, his defense and his rebounds, but I think everyone understands … what they have to do to make up for what Gene did last year.”
Look at who the Tuckers still have. Gildersleeve, an all-league senior guard, averaged 14.6 points a game. Dwyer, a senior forward, was good for 12 points a game and Tardif, an all-league senior guard, averaged 9. Four players had 20-point games for the Tuckers last season.
Tuthill, a junior point guard, was the league’s rookie of the year.
James Nish, a 6-foot-3 senior forward, started a bunch of games. He brings the team height along with the 6-4 Josh Conklin and the 6-3 Ryan Mowdy.
Then again, Ellwood said size shouldn’t be much of an issue. “This is basically a guard league,” he said.
The Tuckers have plenty of depth in the back court, with Marcos Perivolaris, Auggie Knuth and Jon Dwyer, Chris’ younger brother. Dan Fedun, a junior forward, is a new addition to the team.
Altogether, it amounts to what Ellwood said is “probably my deepest team, probably my best offensive team.” Because of that depth, Ellwood, who takes a 74-140 record into his 11th season with the team, said he may go deeper into his bench to rest some legs.
With Mattituck’s speed, skill and savvy, Ellwood believes the Tuckers have closed the gap on League VII’s Babylon and Southampton; both of those teams each lost two all-county players.
Asked following a four-way scrimmage Saturday if he was ready for the new season, Ellwood replied: “You never feel like you’re ready. Right now I’m just thinking about getting through the next week.”
Southold coach Phil Reed also understands the value of defense. His First Settlers (8-10) have made gradual progress in that area over the past couple of seasons, but Reed says they need more improvement. Last season the First Settlers gave up an average of 53 points per game. Reed would like to see that figure dropped down to the 40s.
“Defense has to come from the heart, man,” he said. “It can’t come from just talking.”
So far Reed likes what he has seen. Preseason practices, he said, have been intense and three of his top players — seniors Liam Walker, Shayne Johnson and Alex Poliwoda — look like they are in the best shape of their lives.
Walker, an all-conference shooting guard, averaged 26 points a game last season. He enters his fourth varsity season about 150 points shy of 1,000 career points.
“If Liam sets the tone early, we’re going to be tough to beat,” said Reed.
Poliwoda is a long-range shooter, having knocked down 43 3-point shots last season.
If that isn’t enough, the First Settlers also have Greg Gehring, a junior point guard who transferred from Bishop McGann-Mercy. He will be a starter, said Reed.
The First Settlers are rich in seniors. Also among the team’s eight 12th graders are Matt McCarthy, Patrick Mejsak, Ryan DiGregorio, Anthony Siracusano and Jon Rempe.
The junior class is well represented on the team, with Noah Mina, Dominick Panetta, Michael DiCandia, Joe Worysz, Dylan Van Gordon, Aidan Vandenburgh and Aidan Walker, Liam’s brother. Another player, Patrick McFarland, is a sophomore.
Reed said he can see all the pieces coming together. He said the team is reminiscent of the 2004-5 Southold team that won a Suffolk Class C championship.
“They were special,” Reed said. “This is the same kind of group.”
Last season Southold missed making it into the playoffs by one game. Reed said his team is driven to reach the postseason for the first time in four years.
He said, “I always tell the kids the train is pulling out of the station and we’re not stopping until we’re there.”
Expect Greenport (9-11) to be energetic and intense. Really, the Porters have no other choice but to play that way.
Coach Ev Corwin is expecting tough competition from all the teams he faces in League VIII. Shelter Island. Stony Brook. Southold. Bridgehampton. Pierson. Smithtown Christian. Ross. He doesn’t see any easy games on the schedule.
“There’s no layups any more,” he said. “In this league there used to be a couple. Not any more.”
That means effort will be of paramount importance. The Porters, who lost to Shelter Island in last season’s Suffolk Class D final, are going to have to work for everything they get on both ends of the floor.
Every game, Corwin believes, will present a challenge.
“If we don’t play defense, we’re doomed,” he said. He continued: “We’re not the type of team that can go out there and just skill-wise just beat you. The second we let down a little bit, we’ll be done.”
The Porters must overcome the loss of two graduated players, all-conference guard Gavin Dibble and all-league forward Austin Hooks.
What the Porters do have is a healthy Tim Stevens. The senior guard, a 3-point threat, has fully recovered from a broken fibula that he suffered in his right leg this past football season.
Two other seniors, forward Alex Perez and guard Angel Colon, were starters last season. Tyshe Williams, Darius Strickland, Willie Riggins and twins Matt and John Drinkwater also offer varsity experience.
Darius Bolling, a sophomore brought up from the junior varsity team, will be the starting point guard. “If you got a guy that really leads from that position, it makes everybody else comfortable,” said Corwin.
Corwin said selfish behavior is not tolerated on his team. It’s something the Porters cannot afford. A team-first mentality is essential, he said.
“It’s the only way that we’re going to be able to win,” he said. “We don’t have the seven-footer coming in here. … We’re just really stressing the fact that it’s going to take every single guy.”