Geneva boys basketball coach Phil Ralston believes this year's team is further ahead of schedule than any team in a number of years.
"The message that we've said to the boys this season is we want everyone on this Viking ship to be rowing in the right direction," he said. "That's our metaphor for this season, and I think that's created a really nice sense of unity."
All five seniors who were on last year's team as juniors -- Mike Trimble, Pat McCaffrey, Luke Polishak, Anthony Bragg and offensive tackle-sized forward Connor Chapman -- returned as seniors. They'll be bolstered by seven juniors plus 6-foot-6 sophomore wing Nate Navigato up from a sophomore squad that went 12-0 in the Upstate Eight River and 24-1 overall.
"We're a much bigger team than last year, more athletic, and I think we've got a group of young men who've become very skilled in the game of basketball," Ralston said. "They've put a lot of time in, in the off-season, probably have worked as hard as any team I've seen in the off-season. I think it's going to pay dividends."
Whenever a player makes 61 percent of his shots, that's a good place to start. Maybe down to about 240 pounds for basketball after playing on the Vikings' offensive line in football, the 6-5 Chapman employed a combination of size, soft hands, quick feet and high-low passing to average 6.2 points and grab 3.5 rebounds a game.
He should dwarf those numbers this season, but perhaps he won't need to. Ralston thinks he'll have plenty of help, figuring at the outset he can go eight to 12 deep until he decides on a solid rotation. He said practices are super-competitive, particularly for the guard positions.
"Even if it's a simple five-minute drill they don't want to lose," Ralston said.
Over the past several seasons Geneva has had a 6-7 Dan Trimble here and a 6-5 Chapman and 6-4 Drew White there, but this year's team offers four players listed at least 6-4 -- Chapman, Navigato, Mike Trimble and 6-5 junior Kyle Brown, an athletic football receiver. Rebounding looks to be a strength.
Opponents may also find all those hands difficult to shoot over, and where Geneva's defensive orientation is involved foes often find themselves at a disadvantage anyhow. Last season the Vikings held teams to 50 points or less 13 times, including a Metea Valley squad that scored 90 points three times. Ralston hopes the combination of the lane-clogging Chapman and ball hawks like guards Chris Parrilli and Justin Durante will maintain the defensive tradition.
One thing Geneva lacks is the experience and varsity minutes of last year's squad, which graduated all-area player Brendan Leahy, assists leader Ryan Willing and defensive stopper Ben Rogers, among others. Mike Trimble, who missed 7 games with a broken hand, averaged 3.2 points to join Chapman as the only returnees over 1 point a game.
Regardless of how mature players like Navigato are, it might take a bit for the Viking ship to row straight against more experienced teams such as the two St. Charles teams and Batavia.
"We're not there yet, but the raw material is fun to watch," Ralston said.
Coach: Phil Ralston (fifth year, 67-47; 13th overall, 175-149)
Last year: 15-13, 7-5, fourth in the Upstate Eight River
Key players: Connor Chapman, F, sr.; Nate Navigato, G-F, so.; Mike Trimble, G, sr.
Skinny: A taller crew steers this Viking ship