As crazy as it sounds, the Solon boys basketball team isn’t out for wins in the early season. Good competition is the priority.
Most high school basketball teams coming off a state runner-up campaign with four of five starters returning would be out for blood in a renewed quest to get back to the big stage and finish it, but there are no vampires on the court for the Comet cagers this December.
An undefeated campaign is already off the table for the Solon boys, who lost their season opener against Cleveland Central Catholic, 71-64, on Saturday night as part of the Great Lakes Classic at Cleveland Heights.
“As I told our guys going in, we wanted a really tough opener this year,” Solon fifth-year head coach Tony DeCesare said. “Playing without Sin (Carry) and with some new guys in some different spots, this will give us a better look at what we need to get better at in a hurry.
“And we scheduled our first month that way. Our non-conference schedule with them and Benedictine and Ignatius, we really want to test ourselves early on this year. Rather than find wins, we want to find really good games that will help us out come March.”
While the Comets returned four of five starters, they graduated Sincere Carry, whom many fans thought was the best player in the state. He averaged 23.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 2.6 steals a game last year, and he was one of 10 first-team all-Ohioans in Division I.
The 6-foot-1 guard is now a freshman starter at Duquesne, where he scored 32 points with eight assists, six boards and four steals in just his second game as a college cager.
Not to mention, Solon also graduated sixth-man Ryan Bergen, who shot 40 percent from deep in the Comets’ high-tempo style of play that averaged 82.2 points per game.
“I think that’ll be part of the learning experience as we get into the season without a guy like Sincere and losing a guy like Bergen – can we play the same way?” DeCesare said. “And our thought is yes, and our hope is yes, but we might have to adjust some as we go.
“The reason maybe we would have to (adjust) isn’t the players, but losing some of those guys that we had planned on. You know, I think, to play the way we usually do, you need nine guys and 10 would help. And losing three already, that would be what would force us to adjust.”
While 6-foot senior guards Mike Bekelja, a Fairmont State signee, and Trent Williams, a Tiffin University signee, as well as 6-foot-4 senior forward Nick Close, return to the starting lineup, 6-foot-3 senior David Marbury is slowly working his way back toward being a starter after coming off a hip injury from football.
In addition, 6-foot-2 senior guard Brandon Brown was projected to be a starter before tearing his ACL; 6-foot-3 junior Ethan Pitzel was projected to be the backup center before tearing his rotator cuff in football; and 6-foot-1 senior guard Nihal Goli was figuring to be in the rotation but is out four to six weeks with a knee injury.
“I’d say it’s been a tough couple first weeks,” DeCesare said. “Those guys were a big part of our plan. It kind of changes what you look like as a team a little bit, but we’ll adjust, and I think we’ll still be good.”
In the Comets’ loss against Central Catholic, they trailed, 34-27, at halftime, before getting outscored, 23-13, in the third quarter.
“I think they’re good enough where they’ve got a chance to contend for a Division II state championship,” DeCesare said of Central Catholic. “Now, we played well in stretches. We just were inconsistent, especially on the defensive end. And we had a tough third quarter that really put us behind.
“I think we were down 17 going into the fourth, and we were able to cut it to five. I give a lot of credit to our guys for battling back and hanging in the game. We just ran out of time more so than anything else.”
The main difference in the final score was Central Catholic 5-foot-9 junior point guard Tevin Jackson, a transfer from St. Ignatius who started for the Wildcats last season, DeCesare said.
Jackson scored 20 points and dished out north of 10 assists against Solon on Saturday, and he handled the Comets’ pressure for large stretches of the game, DeCesare said.
“He was able to really get them into their offense, handle our double teams and get them good shots,” DeCesare said. “So, offensively, he definitely was the difference-maker for them. If we could have done a better job on him, I think maybe the game goes a different way. But he was special on Saturday, and he’s going to be a good one.”
Not to mention, the Ironmen had height. At times, they had 6-foot-8, 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-5 players on the court, which caused Solon fits battling inside and getting rebounds. Central Catholic blocked eight or nine shots in the second half alone, DeCesare said.
But the Solon boys are going to have to find ways to finish off layups or draw fouls with plenty of Division I teams also possessing that kind of height, he said.
Assuming starting roles for the Comets in their season opener were 6-foot sophomore guard Marcus Steele and 6-foot-2 senior guard Khalil Jones, who both played limited varsity minutes last season.
“When Mike and Trent graduate, Marcus will take over the team and will be another guy that we can really trust that is that college-level player,” DeCesare said. “And Kahlil, unfortunately, he fouled out with about nine minutes of action, so we didn’t get to see a lot of him on Saturday. But I think he’ll have some big nights this year with his rebounding and his ability to get to the rim.”
While Carry is no longer running the point, Solon still triggered 25 attempts from downtown against Central Catholic. The drive-and-kick play will still be a big part of what the Comets do on offense, but they’ll also be a little bit more attack-the-rim oriented, DeCesare said.
Bekelja and Williams were forces to reckon with last season. Bekelja averaged 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game, while Williams averaged 17.8 points on 43.5 percent shooting from downtown.
“When you see them play, the first thing you’ll notice is how different their bodies are,” DeCesare said. “They worked really hard in the weight room. They’ve added weight, and they’ve added strength. But I think they’ve added additional parts to their game.
“Trent really shot it well last year, and he’s added the ability to get to the rim and create shots for other guys. And I think Mike’s just a more overall complete player this year, and he’s moving back to his natural position. So, I think you’ll see even a better version of Mike this year.”
But with Carry no longer the top focus on opposing teams’ scouting reports, Bekelja and Williams will need to be that much better to get theirs this season, the coach said.