By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
CANAJOHARIE - Phil Schoff knew he was stepping into a good situation.
Upon his appointment as the Canajoharie High School boys varsity basketball coach, Schoff understood that outgoing coach Rick Palumbo had left him the keys to a well-stocked roster for his first season on the Cougars' bench. With the season set to open Friday against Waterford-Halfmoon in the opening round of Greenwich's tip-off tournament, Schoff said that his team's performance in preseason workouts and scrimmages has only served to affirm what he already knew.
"So far, so good," Schoff said Wednesday as the Cougars prepared to depart for a scrimmage at his alma mater, Little Falls. "We have a lot of returning seniors, a lot of returning starters and we're pretty deep on our bench. The leadership is what I'm most impressed with right now."
The Cougars do have a void to fill from last year's 12-7 team that was eliminated in the opening round of the Section II Class C playoffs with the graduation of sharpshooting guard Ryan Hodge, who averaged nearly 16 points per game in 2011-12.
But, in the backcourt alone, Schoff said the Cougars have the depth and talent to replace Hodge's offensive punch. Dillan Veeder returns at point guard, with Kevin Shannon, Karl Gustafson and Zach Bowerman all returning after seeing significant varsity minutes a season ago.
Up front, while Joe Horning and Dante Binotto have gone to graduation, the Cougars boast a pair of 6-foot-4 forwards in junior Zach Folts and sophomore Josh Gonzalez - who showed tremendous potential logging extended action as a freshman last season. Those two, paired with the deep group of quick, aggressive guards, are crucial to the Cougars' ability to play the fast-paced, high-energy system that Schoff has installed.
"We're really looking forward this year to push the ball," Schoff said. "Fast break, rebound and have some fun. Make the game like it should be."
"The younger guys that have stepped in have stepped in big," he added. "They've really grown into my system, they've respected me, they've respected each other. That's really a big point of emphasis this year - respect."
The other major point of emphasis for Schoff has been to stress continuity throughout the entire Canajoharie boys basketball program. Having served as both modified and junior varsity head coach in recent years before ascending to the varsity job, the former LeMoyne College cager said he wants to build a program that has modified and JV players learning the same system as the varsity squad, easing transitions from year to year.
"We've grouped together, so we have an entire system now," he said. "It's not just separate modified, JV, varsity - it's a system where we run a lot of the same plays, do a lot of the same stuff. So, even if we need to bring a JV kid up to varsity, they're ready to go up. It promotes the system to grow as the years go on, instead of kids having to adjust to each level."
That philosophy has led to what Schoff admitted have been some intentionally rigorous preseason workouts - something he stressed will carry over even once the regular season finally tips off.
"I tell our guys, 'We practice a heck of a lot more than we play in the games, so whatever we do in practice, we're gonna do 10 times more than we do in the games. Our habits in practice have to be really on point, and our goal this year is to out-practice the pace that we play in the games,'" he said. "By saying that, building on the system we already have, the kids are raring to go and get into some games here - because we've been practicing an awful lot."
Schoff is just as eager to see his team in action, though he said that when it comes to figuring out the competition in the Western Athletic Conference North Division, he's the one who will have a bit of a learning curve to deal with.
No matter. He's taken a little bit of famous advice to cope with that.
"John Wooden, he said that sometimes he didn't know anything about the other team and he'd have to pay a quarter for a media guide so he'd know who was playing," Schoff said. "I'm not that much out of the loop - I know what our rivals are and how talented they are - but I'm more focused about what we're going to do when we get out on the court."