By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
When Tony Orapello took control of the Amsterdam boys basketball program last year, the head coach quickly got to work putting his system in place at all levels of the Running Rams' organization.
While Orapello's vision -- an Amsterdam squad with a run-and-gun offense and a high-pressure defense -- is still a work in progress at the varsity level against the beasts of the Big 10, the program's junior-varsity squad has turned heads this season with its adoption of the fast-paced system.
"I think they've improved an awful lot," says Orapello. "I'm pretty pleased with what they've been doing."
Coming off a loss Tuesday -- the squad played without its best player, sophomore James Valentin, who missed the game with a broken nose -- the Amsterdam JV team's record stands at 6-3.
"But, it's like I tell the guys," says Tim Jones, the first-year head coach of the JV squad. "We're on JV, and that means the most important thing is that we just get better each day. If they look back 10 or 20 years from now and their JV season sticks out to them more than their varsity one, than I didn't do my job."
Most of the junior-varsity players suited up last season for the freshman squad, which was then coached by Orapello. Before his varsity games this season, Orapello typically hangs out near the Amsterdam bench for the JV games, often taking a player aside for a quick minute.
"I know them well because they were my guys last year," says Orapello. "So, I give them pointers and just tell them what I see."
Usually what Orapello sees is a fast-paced group, firing away 3-pointers and looking for baskets in transition.
"We have to play this way," says Jones. "This is the way we're going to win and be successful."
It is also a way the young Rams like to play.
"We like to move it," says the team's freshman point guard, Kory Bergh. "That's our program now, with Orapello and coach Jones. We just like to run. It's fun to play in, especially as a point guard."
When the Rams do slow it down, the play usually revolves around a pick-and-roll between Bergh and center Jemal Robinson.
"Bergh will always find me," says Robinson, "if he's playing good."
Orapello says he sees several of the junior-varsity Rams joining the top squad next year and immediately contributing.
"There's definitely a good future there," says Orapello. "There's something coming up."
RINSE AND REPEAT
The Rams' varsity season continues tonight in Troy against the La Salle Institute Cadets, as the Big 10 begins its second round of games.
Waiting for Amsterdam (2-7, 2-6) is a club that has had its share of rocky moments. After a solid start to the season that included a win against Troy, La Salle (6-4, 6-2) went through a tough stretch before winning its last two games.
"Every team goes through their ups and downs. I think, thankfully, we've had some challenges and we've handled them pretty well," LSI head coach Steve Sgambelluri says.
"That's part of the journey," he adds.
Built around the inside-outside game of Elijah Burns and Ralph Erickson, Sgambelluri says he still thinks his club can compete for the Big 10 title. The coach says there is no magical formula needed for his squad in the second half, saying the Cadets just need to "defend with energy" and do their best to get a few more transition baskets each night.
"I wish I could give a revolutionary answer, but that's really what it is," Sgambelluri says.
La Salle bested Amsterdam, 68-44, when the two teams met earlier this season.
With 3:54 to play in the second quarter of Amsterdam's 68-58 loss Tuesday to Schenectady, the Rams' Juell Springs picked up his fourth foul.
While most players are stuck to the bench after two first-half fouls, Springs stayed in to flirt with a first-half disqualification -- only neither Orapello nor Springs knew that's what the player was risking.
"No," says Orapello, with a brief chuckle, when asked if he knew how many fouls Springs had late in the second quarter.
"I didn't either," says Springs. "The fouls kind of racked up quickly. I was playing as hard as I could and I guess I was getting fouls because of it."
Springs got the start Tuesday because of an injury to starting forward Zach Dufel, and the junior big man responded to the vote of confidence from Orapello, who says that he might have left Springs in the game with the fouls even if he knew how many Springs had.
"He was playing great," says Orapello. "I didn't want to touch him. He was rebounding, he was playing defense -- he was doing a lot of good things."
Springs scored one basket in the first half, but grabbed a season-high nine rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass.
"I felt like with Zach out, I had to step up, take care of business and get boards for my teammates," says Springs. "I felt like there was a lot riding on me."
Springs ended up sitting out the third quarter -- Orapello realized how many fouls the big man had at halftime -- and played one minute in the fourth quarter before fouling out.
Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Rams are behaving more like a team on a three-game winning streak.
"My guys feel pretty good right now," says Orapello. "They're psyched."
While the win-loss results have not been there for the Rams in recent games, the optimism comes from the team's consistent stretch of strong play. After three clunkers to start the season, the Rams have not fielded a bad effort and have put scares into some of the Big 10's top teams.
"We didn't start the season off as a team," says Springs. "But we're coming together now. We're playing well together and that helps us going into the rest of the season."
Heading into the season's second half, the Rams are hoping their improved play will translate into more wins.
"There's not a guy here who likes to lose," says senior Robbie Sherlock. "But we're stepping up and playing better, which we can be proud of. We're playing a lot better than we did at the beginning of the year, so we're staying positive."
Short of Amsterdam knocking off a Big 10 power like Christian Brothers Academy or Troy during the second half of the season, the biggest upset of the Rams' season came Tuesday night ... when Luis Laboy made all 10 of his free throw attempts.
Heading into the contest, Laboy -- the Rams' leading scorer at 13.2 points per game -- had made a dismal 48.3 percent of his foul shots, his missed freebies generally followed by a lot of head-shaking from Laboy.
"So, I changed it up," says Laboy. "I was standing further back from the free-throw line before, but, before the game, I was talking to (assistant) coach (Charles) Beekman and he had me move up."
Prior to Tuesday's game, Laboy says he took his free throws from about 6-to-8 inches behind the line. Now, he's standing right at the stripe and found himself a fan of the results.
"I just felt it," he says. "I wanted to keep drawing fouls to get to the line."
With the 10-of-10 night at the line, Laboy upped his free-throw percentage to 61.5.
From his perch atop the Big 10 standings alongside CBA (8-2, 7-1), Troy (7-2, 7-1) head coach Richard Hurley sees a league in flux.
"This is probably the wackiest the Big 10 has been in six or seven years," says Hurley. "I think there are four or five teams that can beat anyone or give someone a run for their money every night, and it hasn't been like that in years. I think it makes it fun."
Individually, Hurley says the players that have most caught his eye -- besides the well-known standouts like Troy's Javion Ogunyemi and Jerrell Reid, La Salle's Burns and Erickson, and Catholic Central's (5-5, 4-4) Anthony Mack -- are CBA's Nick Marini and Schenectady's (5-5, 5-3) Darius Macon.
While Marini has impressed Hurley with the point guard's ability to flawlessly run the Brothers' system, Hurley is most enamored with the 6-foot-6 Macon -- who scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked eight shots against Amsterdam Tuesday.
"He -- I think -- has been the most improved player I've seen," says Hurley. "I thought he was talented last year and he'd make a couple nice plays that would make you say 'Wow,' but, this year, he's been very consistent. ... He's been the one that's really turned my eye."
Hurley thinks Amsterdam's Laboy is a player that could catch fire in the second half of the season. Laboy -- who is averaging 23 points per game in his last four outings -- is a tough player to guard for Big 10 defenses, Hurley says, adding that Laboy's speed and left-handedness makes him a tough cover.
"He's certainly going to garner some first-team all-league votes, for sure," Hurley says.