By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
After last week's 95-80 loss to Mekeel Christian Academy, the Amsterdam Running Rams were a bit dazed by the 3-point shooting barrage they witnessed from the Lions.
Tonight, the Rams' opponent likely will not make another 17 treys, but the Troy Flying Horses will present Amsterdam with its tallest task of the season.
Troy (5-2, 5-1) boasts a senior frontcourt of 6-foot-7 Jerrell Reid and 6-foot-9 Javion Ogunyemi, who is bound for Siena College.
While the Running Rams (2-5, 2-4) are an undersized bunch, Amsterdam has actually out-rebounded its opponents this season by a slim margin. Continuing that pattern, though, of out-rebounding their opponents might take a little extra fire tonight at Amsterdam High School for the Rams.
"We don't have to necessarily do anything different -- just maybe with more intensity," says senior John Hardies. "It's going to have to be rebounding by committee and we might need two of our guys to box out one of theirs. We need everybody to crash the boards all the time -- every play -- and that's what it will come down to for us."
It will take strong efforts from perimeter players like point guard Billy Carr and Hardies to help out starting center Robbie Sherlock on the boards. While Sherlock has averaged a shade fewer than eight rebounds per game in his last four contests, the 6-foot-3 senior figures to have his hands full tonight in his matchup with Ogunyemi.
"But there's no reason we can't outmuscle them, use our lower centers of gravity to fight them for every rebound," says Hardies. "That's our plan."
"We need to work hard and play our best," adds reserve Andrew Rouse. "We're not scared of them, so we'll be up to the challenge."
Unassuming no more
While Amsterdam will be attempting to score an upset tonight, so will the Schenectady Patriots. One of the surprises of the Big 10 this season, Schenectady (4-4, 4-2) takes to the road tonight to visit the LaSalle Institute Cadets (4-4, 4-2), a club that knocked off Troy earlier this season.
Though Schenectady is coming off back-to-back losses during the holiday break, Patriots head coach Eric Loudis did not seem discouraged with the way his young team has matured during the season.
"The way that we have played has gained us a little bit more notoriety than the kids were expecting," Loudis says.
Schenectady entered this season with only three returning players and nine first-year varsity hands. But led by senior big man Darius Macon (15.8 points per game), the club has taken Big 10 powers like Christian Brothers Academy (7-2, 6-1) and Troy to the wire, and blown out middle-of-the-pack clubs like Bishop Maginn (3-5, 2-4) and Catholic Central (4-4, 3-3).
"You don't always need to have the best players to have a good record. As long as you play together and have good teamwork -- and have a good work ethic -- good results can come from that," says Loudis, explaining his team's formula for success.
Schenectady makes a trip to Amsterdam Tuesday. As part of a varsity doubleheader, the Amsterdam and Schenectady girls will play prior to the meeting between the boys.
The struggles are over for Amsterdam's Luis Laboy.
During the season's first few weeks, Laboy alternated between forcing rushed shots and riding the Rams' bench.
But, three games ago, Laboy showed signs of life in Amsterdam's 61-53 loss to Albany, a contest in which Laboy had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Two games ago, Laboy began to really deliver, registering 24 points and five assists.
Then, last game, the senior struck for 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
"I'm just not thinking about anything anymore," says Laboy. "I'm just playing. During the first few games, I'd get the ball and hesitate. Now, I'm taking my time, relaxing, holding the ball tight and looking for open shots.
"I have so much confidence right now," Laboy adds.
Besides added playing time -- after averaging roughly a dozen minutes a night in the Rams' first four games, Laboy has averaged 25 minutes -- Laboy has benefited from the Rams using him at the foul line against opposing zone defenses. The spot -- along with the left corner -- is a sweet one for Laboy, who has made 71 percent of his shots in the last two games.
Laboy says the foul-line area is one he has played from since seventh grade.
"I've always played in the middle so I can get the ball, turn around and look to pass or take an open shot," says Laboy. "If I'm open, I can hit that floater -- I've always worked on that -- or I can get it to a big man for a quick shot."
While Laboy is looking to create for himself and others, the job for the other Rams remains the same.
"It's always been our focus to get the ball more often to Luis because he's our scorer," says Hardies. "Right now he's in a good scoring stretch, so we need to keep looking for him and keep setting him hard picks to help him get open."
Getting Laboy right before the start of the season's season half was critical for the Rams, who have been looking for a go-to scorer all season.
"Every game, you've got to take what the defense gives you. But, when someone's got a hot hand (like Laboy) and is finding his spots and knows he's hot, it [makes things easier]," says Carr. "As a team, it's all coming together now and that's what we want as we're getting near sectionals."
Let it rain
Who is it that is leading the Rams this season in made 3-point field goals?
The team's starting power forward, that's who.
Senior Zach Dufel has made a team-best eight 3-pointers this season, as the Rams' offense has been adapted to help free up Dufel for more open looks from deep.
Always a forward or center on his basketball teams growing up, this season has been one in which the big man has been freed to let it fly.
"Coaches didn't always want me shooting the 3 a lot when I was younger," Dufel says.
But the forward always practiced the shot on his own time, enough for the senior to feel confident to call the 3-pointer his favorite offensive weapon.
"It always has been," says Dufel. "I've been working on it a lot more this year, too. Coach (Tony) Orapello always wants me to shoot it when I'm open and it's been working out for me this year."
Dufel is actually shooting a higher percentage on 3s this season -- 38.1 percent -- than he is on 2-point field goals, where he is shooting 37 percent. In recent games, the Rams have looked to take advantage of this peculiarity, as Dufel has found himself playing more often on the perimeter.
As for where he likes to find himself when he is away from the basket, the senior is quick with an answer.
"I kind of like the corner," says Dufel. "That's where I usually make them."
Ready to go
While Dufel leads the team in made 3-pointers this season, the senior does not lead the team in 3-point shooting percentage.
That distinction belongs to Rouse, the junior reserve, who has made 4 of 8 attempts from deep.
Rouse's playing time has fluctuated this season, as the perimeter player has played as many as 19 minutes and as few as six. A defensive-minded player capable of running the Rams' offense in a pinch, Rouse says he does not keep track of his minutes.
"Nah, I just go out there," he says. "It doesn't matter how much time I get. As long as we're winning, that's what matters."
Instead of pouting, the junior says he stays active on the bench, making sure he is always ready to head in when Orapello calls his number.
"You focus throughout the game when you're on the bench," says Rouse. "I always try to know what offense we're running and what defense we're in, and every timeout I want to be one of the people making sure everyone stays focused and into the game."