Smallwood brings it for Pats

Heritage Hills junior JT Smallwood (20) has emerged as an effective role player for the Patriots this season.

By COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

LINCOLN CITY - The word "small" may appear in JT Smallwood's name, but his play on the court has been anything but that.

The Heritage Hills junior spent last year as a junior varsity player when the team won their first sectional championship since 2003, but this year, he's served as a key cog for a Patriots (19-3) team that won its second straight sectional championship on March 6.

Like some of his other teammates, Smallwood went into the year trying to figure out what his role was going to be. He's since found his niche in what his role is - as somebody who plays defense, rebounds and drains those open shots - something opponents have become accustomed to at this point.

Smallwood didn't accrue much playing time at the beginning of the year. He had to earn his spot, and then came the Dec. 18 game at Crawford County. In his first career start, he drained seven 3-pointers, tying a team record held by Ben Lambeck, Nathan Schorr (twice), Gavin Schaefer and Alec Meunier.

"It feels great," Smallwood said. "After the game, I didn't find out until I was on the bus, and all the coaches and the players told me. That feeling's just great, it's really indescribable once you find that out."

Pats coach Nate Hawkins described that performance as "one heck of a shooting exhibition" that night, and he can't remember ever coaching a player who went from JV the previous year to team record holder in their first varsity start.

"Early on, I said, 'We need you to shoot the basketball four-five times,' and I think from that, he built some more confidence," Hawkins said. "And then all of a sudden it's, 'If you're open, you better be shooting it, there's no question about it.'"

Smallwood spent a lot of his summers in the gym honing on his craft as a shooter. His dedication to this area of the game earned him recognition as part of the Patriot 10,000 Plus Shot Club for 2017-18 and 2018-19 - good enough to depict his name on a couple of banners that adorn the Heritage Hills gym.

Hawkins needed other players besides senior Blake Sisley to step up following the team's 66-60 overtime loss Feb. 12 and Forest Park, and Smallwood's play down the stretch has helped the Pats win six straight games. He's averaging 5.9 points per game for the team this season.

"We had a long conversation," Smallwood said. "(Hawkins) was like, 'We got to get better. It just has to be getting better if we want to win a sectional, regional and so on.' It started that next Monday in practice. We really got after it, giving our guys some more roles, whether that was me, (sophomore), Marcus (Becher), (senior) Adam (Guth), or whoever it was getting more playing time. I just felt like we stepped into it, we took advantage of it and we just took off from there."

Yet, the ball isn't always going to go in for shooters, and Smallwood ran into this kind of trouble in the March 5 sectional semifinal game against Evansville Bosse. Smallwood took his shots, but none of them fell, and he finished with no points.

Smallwood told the Herald that being shut out in the shooting department was tough, but that didn't deter him from taking charges, getting rebounds and playing hard on defense. His contributions in other facets on the court helped the Pats collect a 62-51 win against the Bulldogs.

"I was just so happy for him" Hawkins said. "He got six rebounds in that game. Here's a 5'10" guard, and after the game, he was like, 'Coach, do you know how many rebounds I got?' He was just excited about contributing - helping the team, even though he wasn't able to make shots.

"Because I told him, I said, 'You know what you're going to do? Tomorrow night, you're going to come out and you're going to hit shots,' and he did," he continued.

Smallwood tallied 11 points in his team's 54-32 sectional championship win against host Boonville. He couldn't get a bucket the night before, but he banked a trio of shots from downtown - expressing his bow and arrow gesture that comes after he makes a three.

He originated the bow and arrow recently when friends and members of the student section asked him for creativity following his threes.

"My family has a great past in hunting," Smallwood said. "It just really feels a part of me."

"It just put a smile on my face because I knew the things that we had talked about the night before really sunk into him, and he was ready to go," Hawkins said.

Another test awaits Heritage Hills on Saturday in the Regional 8 game at Washington's Hatchet House against Silver Creek - the same Silver Creek the Pats were supposed to meet a year ago before the pandemic shut sports down.

Heritage Hills has changed, since it graduated two-thirds of the trio last year that Sisley had formed with Simon Scherry and Murray Becher, but the Dragons have their own trio in seniors Trey Kaufman, who's set to play at Purdue University, Kooper Jacobi, who's set to play at the University of Toledo and junior Branden Northern.

Hawkins anticipates that Silver Creek is going to concentrate much of its defense on Sisley, which will create opportunities for players like Smallwood to make shots.

"Blake is probably one of the best big men passers that I can remember in a long time," he said. "He's going to find you. You just got to go to the open area, and I think it's going to allow some opportunities. And in order to win that game and win the regional, some guys are going to have to step up, and they're going to have to make shots."

"I think the focus is going to be on him, but they're still going to focus on not letting me or Marcus being able to get shots," Smallwood said. "I think they'll play a lot of man (defense) against us, but we got to be ready for a trap or any other press or anything that they try throw at us on the go, but we're going to be ready for it."

Hawkins knows his team is not going to stop Kaufman, but the Pats do hope to slow him down. They'll be looking for Smallwood to help out on Kaufman on defense in their effort to slow him down.

This program has never won a regional championship, but if it happens Saturday night, the fifth-year coach knows Smallwood will have played a prominent role in that.

"I think Silver Creek's going to know that he can make shots," Hawkins said. "He's going to have to make sure and take what the defense gives him, and then also he's going to be put in a position where he's going to handle the ball, and handle pressure. And if he can do those things, we really like our chances."