Life after Liam may not be so bad after all.
It has happened before. A team loses a star player and yet, somehow, things fall into place and the team actually plays better.
That may be the case with the Southold High School boys basketball team, which bid farewell to Liam Walker, an all-state fourth team player who graduated this year with 1,180 points over four varsity seasons.
And yet, coach Phil Reed believes the First Settlers’ chemistry is a little better, the offense is more well-rounded and there is a greater commitment to defense.
Call it addition by subtraction.
“Liam helped us big-time with scoring,” Reed said. “It’s a new era for us. I miss Liam, but I think it’s a new era for Southold basketball. We’re going in a nice direction. Our program is going to improve.”
The First Settlers return a good deal of talent from a 10-9 team that lost to Pierson in a Suffolk County Class C Tournament outbracket game last season. Leading the way are Greg Gehring, a senior guard/forward, Pat McFarland, a junior guard, and Noah Mina, a senior guard.
“They really play together,” Reed said. “There’s no egos [among] the three of them.”
Gehring and McFarland both averaged about 8 points per game last season. Gehring, who brings physical and mental toughness to the floor along with a high basketball IQ, led the team with eight rebounds per game.
Another returner, 6-foot-2 senior center Aiden Vandenburgh, provides a low-post presence and is coming off a great fall season, said Reed.
The fifth starting position will likely go to Aidan Walker, Liam’s brother who Reed called the team’s unsung hero. In only his third year of organized basketball, Aidan Walker captains the team along with Gehring and Mina.
Michael DiCandia, a 6-3 power forward, and guard Dylan Van Gorden are also assets.
The First Settlers have junior prospects coming off the bench in Doug Fiedler, Alex Baldwin, Gus Klavas and Mathew Cardi. Myles Williams and Joey Worysz are new additions.
The First Settlers will face stiff competition in what could be the deepest League VIII in recent memory. Not only does the league feature two county champions in Class C Stony Brook and Class D Bridgehampton, the defending league champion, but Port Jefferson joins the league, which also includes Shelter Island, Greenport and Pierson.
“I don’t think there’s [any] easy outs in our league,” Reed said. “It’s up for grabs at this point.”
Photo Caption: Greg Gehring averaged 8 points and 8 rebounds for Southold last season. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)
Greenport’s coach, Ev Corwin, knows there will be no cupcakes in League VIII. “You can’t get complacent,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of close games.”
A year ago at this time, Corwin knew that his Porters were facing a rough season, and it was. They finished with a 4-14 record.
“Four and 14,” he said. “I spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to turn it around.”
But Corwin saw the cavalry on the horizon. He knew help was on the way.
What a difference a year makes. The picture for the Porters has brightened considerably.
Three seniors — point guard Bayron Rivas, forward Ryan Costello and guard Brendan Walker — have a good deal of playing experience, as does sophomore guard Darrius Strickland. Costello made the League VIII all-academic team.
A fresh infusion of talent from an undefeated junior varsity team helps, too. Julian Swann, a 6-3 freshman center, along with 6-4 junior center Sam Strickland Jr. and 6-3 junior forward Jack Webster, bring the Porters the sort of size they haven’t had in quite a while.
The backcourt has depth with Jordan Fonseca, Tashawn Lawrence, Remy Droskoski and Ben Bracken, who have been promoted to the big team along with forward Evan Maroney.
Corwin said, “In small schools sometimes it’s tough to have real competition on a team … but we’re deep at every position, and guys know there are guys waiting for their spots who can play.”
As for playing style, with their height and athleticism, the Porters will look to run.
“I think we have a chance to win every night,” Corwin said. “I’m excited.” Then, thinking it over, he said, “Definitely, it’s time for us to start winning now.”
How do things look in League VII? Don’t ask the Mattituck coach, Paul Ellwood, because he is just as likely to ask you.
“I’ve never gone into a year knowing [so little about] how the year is going to play out. A lot of teams have lost guys,” said Ellwood, who has coached the Tuckers (10-8) since the 2003-4 season. He added, “Nothing would shock me.”
Even the Tuckers aren’t the same. Ellwood is left with an uneasy feeling.
“We’re not deep,” he said. “In the past couple of years we’ve been deep, so if one guy went down, it was not a big problem. This year, if one guy goes down, we’re in trouble.”
Two Tuckers, senior forward Ryan Mowdy (leg) and senior guard Jon Dwyer (arm), are both coming off of injuries, as it is.
Having missed the playoffs by one game last season, the Tuckers will need to stay healthy and rely on their four returning starters. Senior guard Joe Tardif, senior forward Dan Fedun, senior point guard Parker Tuthill and Mowdy each averaged 9 points per game last season. Tardif made the all-league second team and Mowdy was the League VII rookie of the year.
Dwyer is the only other returning player.
New to the varsity scene are: Carter Montgomery, Brendan Kent, Alex Burns, Ryan Shuford, Ryan McCaffery, Matt Mauceri and Joe Mele. They are all forwards, except for McCaffery and Mauceri, who are guards.
The Tuckers face a tough early schedule with games against East Hampton and Bridgehampton before rivalry games with Southold and Greenport and then the opening of the league season with Babylon and Southampton. Babylon and Southampton are 71-1 against the rest of the league over the last three years.
Ellwood said, “We’ll get tested early.”