Sawyers’ head coach Mike Tiano has the luxury of knowing he can put a starting five on the court that, through a combination of skill and savvy, can compete with anyone. But just as important, he said, is knowing he has a number of options he can go to at any point during any given game.
“For me, it’s really important,” Tiano said. “This is the deepest bench I’ve played. I go as deep as nine guys right now. After your first five you have to have guys who can basically step in where the starters were and go at the same pace.”
Tiano said he counts on the reliability of reserve players for key matchups, or if the team is struggling with shooting or rebounding or defense. The understanding that he can turn to his bench for instant energy is a comfort to a coach looking to steer his team toward a successful playoff run.
For example, Tiano said Bowie Matteson is a solid low post threat on both ends of the court coming off the bench.
“He’s usually an inside guy, who when I need a blow for one of my starters he comes in and gives me great minutes,” Tiano said.
Conversely, if what the team needs is a deft offensive touch, Pat Maloney might be called into action.
“I know if I need someone to go in and shoot the ball, he’s typically a guy I can go to,” Tiano said.
The team’s acknowledged sixth man is Nick Gruccio, a senior who can play a variety of on court roles who doesn’t shy away from pressure.
“I feel comfortable playing him as a guard and a forward,” Tiano said. “He brings a lot of intensity.”
Tiano said he hopes to expand the team’s rotation over the remainder of the regular season as well.
“I have two juniors, Marc Whitaker and Drew McClain, who at this point haven’t gotten much playing time. I can see them stepping in as they continue to become more familiar with the system.”
Tiano added that he typically brings a couple of tenth graders up from the JV squad for the playoffs to give them a taste of the highest level of high school competition.
The Sawyer bench isn’t just respected by their coach; they’ve also got the respect of their teammates in the starting five. Lucas Veltrie said they play a key role both on and off the court.
“The bench players are one of the most important parts of our team,” he said. “They pick you up when you’re down or when you took a bad shot they’re there to cheer you on.”
Veltrie said the reserves also share with the starters a desire to win, no matter who is in the game.
“They give a good spark if some of the starters come out flat,” he said. “A strong bench can be huge because that also means that your whole team is playing well if even when the people off the bench are playing strong. I love our bench they are really enthusiastic and make us even stronger as a team.”
No better feeling
Senior Connor Hicks, the team’s starting point guard, recalls what it meant to come off the bench for the team in years past.
“When you’re coming off the bench, you want to find some kind of spark for your team,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than coming off the bench and having an immediate impact on the game. If you’re not in the game, you’re constantly doing what you can to fire up your teammates on the court, as well as preparing yourself for when your number gets called.”
Hicks said he doesn’t see any difference in the dedication of the starters and the reserves. They all want to win.
“This is my last year playing for this program, period,” he said. “It’s the same way for Luke, Jon (Hindes), Nick, Pat, Bowie, and CJ (Jansen). You want to be remembered as a player who left it all on the court when your time here is finished. When you have that mindset, you try to make the most of every game you have left. I owe it to my teammates, my coaches, and everyone else involved in the program to give it everything I have when I step on the court.”
Veltrie noted that the Sawyers might not have come away from their last game – a 72-70 overtime win against Wallkill on Friday, Jan. 14 – without the strong play of the bench.
Gruccio is a starter and captain on the football team, and is by all accounts a strong competitor. Yet he understands and even relishes his role as the Sawyers’ sixth man.
“The mind set coming off the bench is different,” he said. “I have to be right in the game when I hit the floor. Being the sixth man is hard because it’s like starting, but not. I just have to be ready to play.”
Gruccio’s attitude is shared among his teammates no matter where they are on the depth chart.
“I make the best of my minutes by doing the best I can to help the team win,” he said. “I feel important to the team doing well, but everyone should feel that way because we all put forth something to help us win.”
Gruccio said how players practice will often determine how much playing time they see when it counts the most.
“Coach plays whoever is hot at the time,” he said. “One minute I could play the whole game or not play a minute in the fourth quarter.”
The bench gets its next opportunity to show its mettle when it hits the road against Highland on Friday, Jan. 21.