Crusaders finally hit the floor tonight

Isiah Sykes of Helias is one of the veteran players for the Crusaders this season.

Isiah Sykes of Helias is one of the veteran players for the Crusaders this season. Photo by News Tribune.

You think waiting to open your Christmas presents is hard? Try doing the kind of waiting the Helias boys basketball team has done.

When the Crusaders finally take to the court today in a 7:30 p.m. home game against Battle, there won’t be many teams in the state who have waited longer to play their openers.

The first allowable date to play a game was way back on Nov. 25. Now, 15 days later, the Crusaders are finally taking to the hardwood.

“You can look at it two different ways,” Helias coach Josh Buffington said. “One, we’ve had five weeks to prepare for our first game, which is a lot, and take it as a positive. Or you can look at it as a negative because it’s hard to keep 16-, 17-year-olds focused for five straight weeks without playing someone else.”

That setup has caused the coaching staff to work hard to keep things fresh.

“We’ve definitely had to be creative with our practice plans and with how we’ve prepared,” Buffington said. “… We’ve been able to shorten practices a little at times, maybe give them a day off here or there where you typically wouldn’t do it with just two or three weeks to prepare.”

One benefit is the Crusaders had a little extra time to indoctrinate the players who came from the football team, which made another one of its lengthy appearances in the state playoffs.

“In my five years here, I’m getting used to deep runs by the football team and short starts on ours,” Buffington said. “So it’s definitely worked to our benefit with the later start. It’s maybe something we’ll look into doing regularly in the future.”

Once football finished, the basketball team picked up three varsity and four JV players.

“You go in one day from having 12 at practice to 19, and you can get a lot more done with 19,” Buffington said. “You like to keep your guys in their general spots offensively and defensively, but when you’re missing guys who are key to those spots, you’re having to play guys at spots they’re not familiar with. That can be a positive in that they’re learning different positions, but a negative, too, because they’re not focusing on the spot they’re going to be playing the majority of the time.”

Much like last year, the Crusaders are dealing with injuries as the season opens. They’ll like have just seven or eight varsity players healthy for the first few games.

“We’re a little bit snakebit with some preseason injuries,” Buffington said. “… But the difference is this year we can say we will be 100 percent healthy, it will just take a little time, whereas in years past we’ve lost kids to season-ending injuries.”

Leading the way for this year’s team are a pair of juniors both entering their third year on the varsity, post player Hale Hentges and point guard Isiah Sykes.

“It’s a great starting point because you’ve got your leader with the ball back, and then you have the man in the middle,” Buffington said. “… Those are two guys we look to as leaders of the team. They’ve been in the heat of battle in several clutch moments.”

Helias will also get leadership from its only two seniors, forward Michael Tannehill and guard Brock Gerstner, although Gerstner will not play early in the season due to an injury suffered in football, just like last season.

“Brock has had a little bit of bad luck with his injury last year (shoulder) and again this year (broken leg). He’s a great talent out there, can really shoot the basketball, a heads-up player,” Buffington said. “And with Michael, we all know of his athleticism and strength, but most important with him is he’s a great teammate and does whatever the team needs to win.”

Joining the 6-foot-5 Hentges in the frontcourt are a trio of 6-5 players — junior Casey McCollum, sophomore Trevor Koelling and sophomore Adam Bax.

“We’ve gained some size this year,” Buffington said. “We don’t have a 6-8 kid, but we’ve got four or five guys hovering around the 6-5 mark.”

Also in the mix are guards Sam Husting (6-1, soph.) and Alex Barton (5-10, jr.), while guard/forward Chase Bexten (6-3, jr.) and guard Collin Caywood (6-2, jr.) will miss the early going due to illness and injury.

“When I came here five years ago, these guys were all fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders and that’s when we started building relationships with them,” Buffington said. “Now as sophomores and juniors and a couple seniors, I think it’s a group we see tremendous chemistry with.”

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