The start to its season could have been the precursor to disaster. But the way the Southold boys basketball team recovered and has been playing may very well open the door for the First Settlers to the playoffs.
It wasn’t an encouraging start to the season for Southold.
Game 1: loss to Shoreham-Wading River.
Game 2: loss to Port Jefferson.
Game 3: loss to Westhampton Beach.
Game 4: loss to Greenport.
And they weren’t just losses; they were all double-digit losses. The average point margin was 23.8 points.
Making matters worse was one of Southold’s best players, Robert Cooper, breaking his left ankle after blocking a shot and falling to the floor late in the first half of the season opener.
It was hardly the greeting to the 2021-22 season that Southold was looking for. Instead of sulking, though, the First Settlers (6-5, 6-3 Suffolk County League VII) have managed to turn their season around dramatically, winning six of their last seven games. That string of games featured wins over Ross, Smithtown Christian (twice), Shelter Island and Bridgehampton (twice).
“I knew we were going to be getting some wins, but I really didn’t think we would be on a streak like this,” senior forward Cal Karsten said after Friday’s practice. “It’s been really fun, though.”
Coach Lucas Grigonis may be relieved, if not surprised.
“I definitely knew that they were capable of it,” he said. “Again, it’s just a matter of time when things click. That’s something that can’t be forced. That process has to be learned from mistakes and losses and adjusting to, you know, the level of competition.”
Lo and behold, Southold would assure itself of a playoff berth with three wins from its remaining eight games. The first of those games will be Thursday night at home to rival Greenport. Southold is seeking its fourth postseason appearance in five years.
It should be noted that Southold’s current run has been accomplished without Cooper, who remains sidelined from his opening-night injury. The senior forward has begun physical therapy and has an X-ray scheduled for next week to see how the ankle is healing, said Grigonis.
Cooper’s absence has only made what Karsten has been doing with his all-around game all the more appreciated. The 6-3 Karsten is averaging 11.3 points, shooting 45.5% from the field in the 10 games he has played, all but one as a starter. He’s also averaging 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.6 blocks and 2.3 steals per game. In the second game against Bridgehampton, he put up a double-double with a career-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds.
“Cal’s doing well,” Grigonis said. “He does a bit of everything, you know. He rebounds, he plays good D and he’s kind of an X factor on both ends of the floor at times, too. I would say his poise and his a character are kind of what pushes him through in those pressure moments.”
Karsten, who captains the team with Cooper and Dylan Newman, said, “I’m trying to just facilitate the offense and be able to score, but also get the ball in as many hands as possible throughout the whole team.”
Southold has been going with a starting lineup of Jack Sepenoski at point guard, Conor Kilcommons at shooting guard, Jaden Olsen at small forward and both Gavin Fredricks and Karsten at power forward. Olsen leads the team in scoring average at 11.5 and Sepenoski has been averaging 8.7 points.
“Things are clicking,” Grigonis said. “Defense definitely improved and scoring points off of our opponents’ turnovers is something we have been able to do well, and just the offense, everyone is more comfortable on offense now.”
He added, “Our current roster really has never played together, so they have to have an open mind and a good work ethic to be able to adapt within the style of play we’re trying to create.”
Since no class championships were contested last year, Southold remains the Suffolk Class C defending champion, dating back to 2020.
“We joked about that,” Grigonis said. “The only two-time returning champion with only winning it once.”
Perhaps the First Settlers can extend their reign. At least they’re heading in the right direction.
Karsten said, “It’s been really fun just to play again because we missed the majority of our last season and we had a limited amount of games, so it’s really just fun to be playing on the court again.”
Surely, the winning doesn’t hurt, either.