Now prepared, Patriots poised for next step

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Spenser Minto, center, celebrated with Heritage Hills teammate Devon Merder, left, Gavin Schaefer and Tyler Ward during a game last season. Those four players all return this season for the Patriots, who didn’t graduate a senior from last year’s squad that finished 14-8.

Herald Sports Writer

Sitting in the Hatchet House locker room after his team’s dismissal from last season’s sectional, Heritage Hills boys basketball coach Matt Sisley began recognizing a couple things.

First, “we just weren’t ready,” said Sisley, whose Patriots were outpaced 81-69 in overtime by Jasper.

“We thought we were, but we weren’t.”

And second, Sisley realized that despite a 14-8 season — the most wins by a Heritage Hills team since 2003-04 — and despite answering the expected uncertainty surrounding a team that had replaced four starters from the previous year and despite whatever moral victory was to be had, this group still required work.

So work, they did.

“I remember just like it was yesterday, sitting in the locker room and we talked about how we’re going to have to get stronger,” Sisley said. “And these kids have lifted all year-round since then, and matured, and they’ve worked on their games relentlessly since that time.”

Though Heritage Hills’ roster was void of any senior last season, leading scorer Devon Merder still called the first-round departure “a heartbreak.”

“But we knew, with everyone coming back, that we were going to be on a mission for that loss,” the senior said. “The next day we knew our goal was to get back to this point.”

The scene in Lincoln City is somewhat frenzied. There’s a buzz. This is the year for which the Patriots have been waiting.

Patiently? Not quite.

The team toiled through more strength and conditioning hours than in any other offseason since Sisley took the helm seven seasons ago, he said. And the volume has come at no sacrifice to intensity.

The workouts underline explosion. Like a merciless 30-seconds-on, 30-seconds-off routine with an elastic waist attachment strapped to the floor that offers resistance as players jump from a squat position.

And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

“We have hit it hard,” Sisley said.

Added junior Gavin Schaefer: “I like to jump. I like to get up and dunk when I can. ... The time in the weight room, that’s helped me tremendously with my vertical.”

Though the team hasn’t taken measurements, Sisley concurred that both Schaefer and Merder have added several inches to their leaps. And altogether, the tempo has become even more explosive for a squad that eclipsed 70 points five times last season. In their scrimmage last week against Tell City, the Pats amassed 88 points through four quarters. With a running clock.

The potential for point accumulation is scary, but the team also must exercise some self-restraint, said Sisley, who alluded to the occasional rushed possessions against the Marksmen.

“We’re ready to go, but we can’t be too ready,” the Patriot coach said. “We’ve got to share the ball.”

Given the bevy of offensive threats, equal distribution in the Pats’ motion offense could create a pleasingly tough dilemma for returning point guard Sam Scherry (7.5 ppg, 4.4 apg), whom Schaefer lauded for his improved midrange jumper as well.

Merder (17.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Schaefer (14.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who both measure 6-foot-4, return to the wings while 6-foot-4 senior Spenser Minto (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) returns to his forward slot and 5-11 junior Tyler Ward (8 ppg) offers inside-outside versatility as the fifth starter.

Anchoring the reserves is senior Justin Crane (4.6 ppg), a “total team player,” per Sisley. The 5-11 shooter typifies the team’s talent better than anybody.

“Any other year, he’d start in this program,” Sisley said. “And he really wants to win. He’s going to do everything it takes for us to do that.”

Along with Crane, the Patriots boast two other senior reserve guards in Torrin Madden and Zach Zoglman, the latter of whom should return in a couple weeks after suffering a strained deltoid. Classmate Andy Sickbert, a “total role player” who’s invested in the idea of banging bodies down low, taking charges and locating shooters, Sisley said, will offer depth to the frontcourt along with 6-5 junior Caleb Sabelhaus, from whom Sisley has seen some early promise. Fellow junior Sam Collins also will support the frontcourt with his 6-3 frame, while classmates Sean Schaefer (guard) and Logan Wilkerson (forward) could be viable options off the bench as well.

What’s impressed Sisley the most has been the group’s attentiveness and coachability. Besides one Wednesday morning lifting session during which Sisley audibly criticized the squad’s diminished effort, there haven’t been many instances where complacency topped competitiveness.

That’s not to say whistles haven’t been blown, Sisley assured.

“When these guys think they’re playing hard, I’ll stop practice and absolutely put the hammer down on them. And they’re acting like, ”˜What are we doing, Coach?’ (I’ll say) ”˜We’re not playing at the level that we need to play at,’” Sisley explained. “It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, it’s that we’re trying to dig in a little deeper.”

The results have already materialized. When the group took its annual trip to D-One Camp in Fort Wayne in late June, the Patriots finished second overall among 23 teams, compiling an 11-2 record as the seventh-smallest school while downing Class 3A No. 7 Batesville, the only team to beat 3A state champion Greensburg last winter.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener at Northeast Dubois, the priority becomes crafting a product from that preparation.

“All the hard work we put in this summer, in the gym, in the weight room, going up to D-One Camp, we didn’t do all that for nothing, to just go in to Dubois on Saturday, roll over and die,” Schaefer said. “We have to take all the hard work we’ve done this whole offseason and make (opponents) pay.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at

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