All one had to do was watch Steven Russell, wearing jeans and a black Providence College pullover, shooting baskets while his Southold teammates loosened up before Saturday’s Suffolk County Class BCD basketball game to know that his senior season hasn’t gone the way he wanted it to.
Southold coach Lucas Grigonis said Russell was in tip-top shape entering the season. Russell said he played in spring and summer leagues, lifting weights five days a week over the summer. “I was ready to go,” he said.
Until he was stopped.
Russell got off to a tremendous start to the season, scoring 27 points in the season opener at Westhampton Beach. It was early in the fourth quarter of that game, though, when the 6-2 small forward suffered an injury that haunts him to this day.
“I got a steal and I was taking it the full court, and I went up for a layup, and then it just felt like I was a shot in the back of the leg and then I went down,” he said. “But I thought it was a cramp and … then I realized after the game that it was a lot worse than a cramp.”
Russell had damaged his left hamstring. Trainer Alyssa Kluber looked at it.
“We kind of thought that it was going to be a week or two weeks, and then I didn’t want to rush back because I wanted to avoid reinjuring it, so I sat out,” Russell said. “I think it was two, three weeks, and when I did come back I was playing short spurts, but then I ended up reinjuring it anyway.”
Two comeback attempts ultimately failed. Russell, who never missed a game because of injury until this season, has played in only eight of Southold’s 22 games. For Saturday’s 107-55 loss to Center Moriches at Walt Whitman High School, he was once again on the bench in street clothes, with his high school career winding down.
“It’s really tough because it’s not anything I’ve ever had to deal with,” Russell said. “I was telling my parents and some friends that were asking me about it, I’ve been super fortunate with injuries throughout my career.”
Southold’s top players, Nick Grathwohl and Russell, are a dynamic duo on the court together. With a healthy Russell, the First Settlers are obviously a better team.
“They tend to feed each other,” Grigonis said. “They both actually average more assists per game when they’re both on the court together, and it just makes our offense more fluid. There was a nucleus and a balance with Steve and Nick on the court with the other core players that is very hard to replicate or replace, and that’s what we struggled with all year.”
Russell, a good defender and rebounder as well as a scorer, has been undergoing physical therapy three days a week, lifting weights three or four times a week and shooting baskets at practices. He has also been acting as a quasi-assistant coach, making observations from the bench and offering advice and wisdom drawn from his four years of varsity experience to teammates.
“Oftentimes things don’t work out exactly how you expected, but I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason, so this has really tested me and it has given me a chance to find other passions as well,” Russell said. “It’s given me an opportunity to work, almost like an assistant to the coaches and seeing the game a different way and try to motivate some of my teammates, but personally it’s been tough.”
However, there may be a bright spot on the horizon. That would be the Southeast Region Class B semifinal/Long Island final March 10 against East Rockaway at Centereach High School.
“There’s no guarantee, but we’re hoping that he may be an option off the bench for us in the Long Island championship [game] against East Rockaway,” Grigonis said. “We have a little bit of time, more time to heal. Obviously he won’t be a hundred percent, but we’re hoping, we’re being optimistic about that date.”
Russell said: “The plan now is to come back to practice on March 2nd. That’s kind of our target date. Practice for a week and then hopefully I’ll be close to a hundred percent and be able to play the full 32 minutes against East Rockaway. That’s the plan, the hope. It would mean everything because … the season hasn’t gone at all how I expected for me.”
Back trouble for backup
Barry Asip, a backup power forward, sat out his second straight game Saturday with bulging discs in his back.
“He had a little bit of back tightness throughout the season, but wasn’t sure what it was,” Lucas Grigonis said of the senior. “He went for a massage to try to loosen it up, but the masseuse would not touch him because she knew that something was wrong.”
Asip saw a doctor, was told he cannot play and is out for the foreseeable future, said Grigonis.