Atholton's reversal of fortune

Boys basketball: A 9-0 start is easing years of bad memories and bad records, including last season's 3-20 mark.

High Schools

January 05, 2003|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

After enduring four losing varsity seasons in soccer and one varsity and two JV seasons in basketball at Atholton, Kevin Daciek is ecstatic that his last season of high school sports is a definite winner.

The Raiders, whose sports programs were decimated by the redistricting of some of its best athletes to River Hill when that school opened in 1996, are a stunning 9-0 in basketball - thanks in part to the redistricting last year of some of those same athletically rich neighborhoods back to Atholton.

The addition of DeMatha transfer Jonas Vaitkus also helped immensely.

The winning erased some bad memories for Daciek - memories that included only 15 soccer victories and three varsity basketball victories in his high school career.

"This makes up for the last four years," said Daciek, a 6-foot guard and one of two returning starters for Atholton. He scored 18 points in yesterday's 68-57 victory over Howard. "We never thought anything like this would happen this season, but I knew we'd be competitive and fundamentally sound. I knew we were getting some good new players, and it was a matter of how we jelled."

His first real inkling of just how good the team could be came during a scrimmage against highly athletic Glen Burnie.

"We came out strong and played pretty good," said Daciek, whose year-round sport is soccer, not basketball.

Said coach Jim Albert: "That scrimmage was a confidence- builder for the team."

After a 3-20 season a year ago, Daciek thought it was fun upsetting Oakland Mills in this season's opening game, and then knocking off Wilde Lake, Owings Mills, Glenelg and talented River Hill before Christmas.

"Early on, teams didn't take us seriously," Daciek said. "I think we're turning some heads and starting to get some respect now."

Two players redistricted from River Hill, 6-2 guard Craig Sauers and 6-1 forward Brandon Boy, are sophomores, but both have played significant roles.

Vaitkus is a 6-4, 210-pound junior forward who brings more than just basketball talent.

"He has a super attitude that is contagious," Albert said. "And he plays aggressively around the rim."

Albert emphasizes aggressive man-to-man defense and an unselfish motion offense that relies upon passing, driving to the basket and drawing fouls.

The Raiders, averaging 13 assists a game, are shooting 73 percent (146-for-205) from the foul line as a team.

And because most of their shots are taken from close range, they are shooting 56 percent from the field. Another plus is a strong bench that Albert is not afraid to use liberally.

"When they come off the bench, I expect them to play hard, and the bench has been a factor so far. We're not going to intimidate anyone when we first walk on the floor," Albert said. "We don't have a dominant player. We have unselfish team players whose confidence is high. We have a nice mixture of seniors and youth, and they are very receptive to coaching. They listen. You don't have to drill it 100 times."

Albert thinks his point guard combination of senior Carson Nickell and sophomore Jim McQuilkin has handled pressure defense well so far, a key to Atholton's success.

He also praised his defense. "Defense has been our bread-and-butter. They bring defense every night."

Albert, raised in the coal-mining and steel-mill town of Conemaugh, Pa., has endured ups and downs during his 23 years coaching basketball at Atholton. The team won county titles in 1986, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998. His 1982 team was the only one to make it to the state final four.

He recalls that the season after redistricting for River Hill that the JV had only three freshmen try out. "We kept two of them, but one of those quit."

"The excitement has been outstanding this season," Albert said. "After we beat River Hill, the fans greeted us at the bus and created a hand tunnel for us to run through. It's good for the kids and the school."

Daciek credits Albert for helping the team jell so quickly. Vaitkus credits him for creating a great environment - one in which unselfish play is esteemed just as it was at DeMatha, one of the country's top high school basketball programs.

"I had no idea this would happen," Vaitkus said. "It has just clicked perfectly. We have 12 guys who can contribute at any time, and so far we've wanted to win every game. I just hope we can keep getting up, because we can be stopped at any time. We have to want it more than the other team. Every win is a big one to add to the pile."

Vaitkus, whose conditioning is still not 100 percent because of outpatient surgery before the season, played a major role in upsetting River Hill, especially late in the game with his aggressive moves to the basket.

Averaging 14 points, he attributes his personal success to his training at DeMatha and to the quality of Atholton's team.

"Being on a team like this has helped me get into every game and play the best I can," he said.

Twelfth-ranked Long Reach, undefeated and considered the favorite to win the county title, looms for Atholton.

When the teams play Friday at Long Reach, the intensity level is sure to go through the roof. Vaitkus plays with two Long Reach team members, Brian Chestnut and Kaleb Walters, on a First Baptist Amateur Athletic Union team.

Micah Mbah, Atholton's only returning starter besides Daciek, led the team in scoring last season with 11 points and leads again with 14 points. The 6-2, 220-pound forward, who didn't play his freshman season, is surprised only by the degree of Atholton's success.

"I expected us to do well, because they can't beat you if you play as a team," he said. "But undefeated? Last year wasn't fun. Now, we're just having fun. Anyone who wants to see a good game should come to Long Reach on Friday."

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