Nothing’s free in struggles at stripe

Ariana van den akker/The Herald
Forest Park junior Ben Englert lined up a free throw in the Rangers’ win at Northeast Dubois last month. Englert was 5-of-7 at the stripe for the game, though Forest Park has connected on just 58 percent of its free throws as a team this season. The Rangers aren’t alone in their struggles, as all five local boys teams are shooting foul shots at a lower percentage than last season.

Herald Sports Writer

Free throw shooting is about process.

It’s about rhythm and routine and mental toughness. It’s about the completion of the most fundamental skill in the sport of basketball. Anyone can conceivably do it. There’s no running, no jumping. You don’t even have to dribble if you don’t want. And it’s supposed to be a handout in a sport weary of giving any.

Then why is it so hard?

Free throw misses can be confounding, and it’s why during a recent practice Forest Park boys coach Jeff Litherland asked senior forward Dakota Begle, the kicker on the Ranger football team, to explain in front his teammates his process of kicking field goals.

“Shooting free throws is a big mental game. It takes a lot of mental focus,” Begle said about his coach’s request. “Just like kicking, free throws (need) a lot of repetition. ... Everyone has to have that one process of that one thing every time.”

Litherland was trying to illustrate a point — one that his team and several others have been grappling with.

Free throw shooting is down. Although some local schools have converted attempts at respectable rates, near the halfway mark of the season, every boys squad is hitting free throws at a lesser rate than a season ago. Only one team, Southridge, is shooting above 65 percent and two programs have dropped below 60. It’s not any better on the girls side. Three teams are less than 60 percent. It’s not an epidemic, but it is becoming a problem.

“I think there are two frustrating things in basketball,” Northeast Dubois boys coach Terry Friedman said. “One is when the other team buries a lot of 3s, and (the other is) when you miss your free throws. Because you work so hard to get into that position, you should be rewarded, but you don’t get anything.”

Coincidentally, it was 3-pointers and poor shooting from the line that sank the Jeeps in their loss against Class 1A No. 1 Barr-Reeve on Saturday, but the latter has been a struggle all season. Friedman said the team sets its goal every season at 70 percent. A year ago, the Jeeps were close at 68, but after nine games this season, Northeast Dubois is hitting just 56 percent, including 11-of-22 and 11-of-21 performances in its last two outings.

What Friedman sees when his team misses free throw opportunities, is an empty possession. He pointed toward the Jeeps’ matchup against the Vikings when, down by 11 at halftime, the Jeeps proceeded to miss five straight free throws to kick off the third period.

To improve, the Jeeps conduct drills during practice and are required to shoot an additional 25 on their own. Friedman also keeps a shot chart that he updates after every game to remind the players of their progress and has even taped his players so they can see exactly what they’re doing at the line. He’s trying to develop the “three R’s” — rhythm, repetition and results.

Still, Friedman hasn’t hit the panic button just yet.

“When we bring it up, when you start bringing things like that to your team’s attention, they can start worrying about it too much and it goes the other way on you,” Friedman explained.

The coach does have one reliable player from the stripe. Senior Cameron Riecker has made 17-of-21 free throws this season for an 80 percent rate. He’s developed his routine — he positions himself and then says “a little prayer to get my head in line.” But he also is learning as he goes.

“Free throws are more mechanical, but even when you focus too much on all the small details, it’s not going to feel right coming off the hand,” said Riecker, who has improved from 64 percent as a sophomore and 75 percent as a  junior.

“If I’m short, I know what I have to fix, and if I’m long I know what I have to fix,” he added.

It’s the kind of consideration Litherland has tried to instill in his Rangers. Forest Park is also converting just 56 percent of its attempts. But if Friedman has strayed away from making free throw shooting a point of concern, Litherland has sprinted the other direction.

“It’s almost at a point now where if a player misses one, they kind of drop their head because we drill it and talk about it so much,” he said.

Litherland devotes as much time on free throws as any other area. He’s added additional drills during practice focusing on shooting when fatigued. He’s talked to his players about developing a specific process every time they step to the line. He’s even dug into their minds; asking where they look? The front of the rim or the back? Do they bend their knees when they shoot? But what is even more vexing is who is missing the shots. Damon Wilmes and Begle — who Litherland calls “two of our top shooters” — have a combined 52 percent average.

“That goes a lot to the mental side,” Begle said. “You can be as good of a shooter as you want, but going to the free throw line is a different shot.”

Interestingly enough though, the Rangers’ worst free throw shooting nights have all come during wins. They converted 7-of-20 in a blowout of Loogootee and made 17-of-33 in an overtime victory over South Spencer, although Litherland noted that had his team made free throws down the stretch, the Rangers could have forgone an extra period altogether.

The boys team isn’t the only squad hurting from the foul line in Ferdinand. The Ranger girls are at the bottom of local teams at a 54 percent rate, again confusing considering the sometimes lethal outside shooting they have displayed — they dropped in a school record 13 3s in a win against Loogootee. Coach Marty Niehaus runs similar drills to most coaches; she incorporates free throw shooting into practice two or three times daily, usually after a particularly demanding drill.

“But sometimes I think the players see free throw time as rest time and therefore are perhaps not as dialed in as they should be,” Niehaus said.

Again, Niehaus said it comes down to a mental approach. At 8-4, the poor shooting hasn’t completely derailed the Rangers, but at their current rate, Niehaus said eventually she’s going to have to take some extra precautions.

Currently Northeast Dubois and Jasper lead area girls team at 63 percent, followed by Southridge (59), Heritage Hills (58) and Forest Park. For the boys, Southridge manages a 66 percent rate, then Heritage Hills at 65 percent and Jasper at 64.

At some point, Litherland feels the shooting will improve and Begle pointed to Forest Park’s last contest as proof that a turnaround is in the works. In a win against Tell City, the Rangers finished 6-of-9 from the line, their best rate of the season. It’s a small sample size, but sometimes it’s the little victories that can help teams get back on track.

“We’re not thinking about our past misses,” Begle said. “We have a clean slate.”

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