By Jason Maholy
Playing a delayed and abbreviated high school basketball season during a pandemic presents challenges that are both universal across the sport and unique to each program.
Commonalities include the requirement that all players wear masks, 90-second timeouts each quarter, as well as the rules and procedures all players and coaches have to follow to stay on the court. Players in Illinois also lost their 2020 summer season and had less than the usual time to prepare for the start of play once the IHSA gave the go-ahead for winter sports to resume.
One set of circumstances not all coaches can claim is that they lost their top nine players from a season ago. That is the situation for Shepard, which had six players graduate, two transfer and another who didn’t return to the program.
It has left coach Tony Chiuccariello in an unfamiliar spot in an already strange campaign. Sophomore guard/forwards Payton Crims and Kylan Rogers, who played on the freshman team in 2019-20, have been thrust into starting roles. Myles Palmer, a senior 6-foot guard/forward, was the team’s 10th man last season and is getting significant playing time.
“We’re young, we’re inexperienced and we’re working on it,” Chiuccariello said. “I’m not going to let it be an excuse, but it is the most unusual season.”
The sports shutdown eliminated the summer offseason, a valuable time for building chemistry and developing the more inexperienced players on a roster. Teams typically play between 30 and 40 games in the summer, enabling coaches to get floor time and reps for guys who will be stepping into more significant roles come winter.
With a six-week, game-heavy schedule this year, the Astros have less practice time and will be learning on the fly. Chiuccariello is trying to make the most of it, and has adjusted his approach to one of looking at long-term growth as opposed to immediate results.
“I’m looking at the big picture,” he said. “I’m just glad these kids get to play. The sophomores are picking up experience, we’re playing a lot of juniors and we’re trying to balance it out.
“Every day is about teaching and growing, and getting better at one thing each day, and trying to do that in a COVID world of restrictions.”
He compared coaching this season to preparing one’s children for the day they leave for college.
“You teach them what you can and just hope they do the right things,” he said. “It’s more of a teaching progression and a lot more patience. We’re teaching the nuances of the game and hoping they can react on game day.”
The Astros opened the long-awaited season with a 72-71 win over South Suburban Red rival Evergreen Park. Senior forward Cole Hermanson led the Astros with 27 points, while Crims and Palmer each had 14.
The growing pains were evident the following game Feb. 11 in Lemont, where the Indians rolled to a 72-39 victory in the SSC crossover. Crims led the Astros with 14 points and Hermanson had 11.
“Lemont is well-coached,” he said. “They shot the ball well and when we went to zone they made us pay with a few threes.”
The Indians hit six 3-pointers, but the bulk of their baskets came in the paint, and frequently in transition. They also controlled the glass, and afforded themselves numerous second and third chances via offensive rebounds.
Against a bigger, stronger and more experienced opponent, Shepard had little room for error.
“We were battling,” he said. “Every mistake we made they capitalized on.”
Lemont sprinted to a 24-13 first-quarter lead, but Shepard withstood the offensive onslaught and kept the game competitive. The Indians led 34-22 with 1:30 to go in the first half, but blew the game open with a 15-2 run bridging the second and third quarters. The Astros managed only five points in the fourth quarter, contributing to the lopsided outcome.
“There was nothing wrong with effort, only execution,” Chiuccariello said. “Hopefully we take something away from this — how to guard in transition, how not to give up a layup, fanning a guy off to the side instead of giving something up up the middle. Anything we learn is a bonus and hopefully those reps pay off over time.”