Rhinelander’s Quinn Lamers dribbles during a boys’ basketball scrimmage at Wausau West High School Friday, Nov. 23. Lamers is one of several returning players for a Hodag team looking to rebound from its first losing season since 2010-11. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Rhinelander’s Ross Skeen attempts a 3-pointer during a boys’ basketball scrimmage at Wausau West High School Friday, Nov. 23. Skeen, a junior, is the Hodags’ lone returning all-conference player.
11/26/2019 7:30:00 AM Team preview: Rhs boys' basketball Hodag hoops looks to bounce back from difficult 2018-19 season
The Rhinelander High School boys' basketball team did not have a Rhinelander basketball-like season a year ago.
At 10-13, the Hodags finished below .500 for the first time since the 2010-11 season. They lost to rival Lakeland twice, giving coach Rich Fortier his first two wins over his former team. What's more, the Hodags lost to perennial conference back-marker Nothland Pines for the first time since joining the GNC.
Rhinelander coach Derek Lemmens, now in his 10th season at the helm, wants to make last season a blip on the radar but knows, in order to turn things around this season, it needs to be all hands on deck.
"We've got to play together," he said. "We are not going to win with one or two guys playing well. We are only going to be a good team if we have a number of guys playing well, playing together. A guy that scores 15 points one night has to accept the fact that maybe the next night he doesn't even score. It has to be 100 percent guys saying, 'This is all about the team if we want to reach our goals.'"
Rhinelander returns three starters off last year's team, including all-conference guard Ross Skeen, but lost its two top scorers from last year in sharp-shooting guard Junior Howard (12.6 ppg) and 6-5 forward Bryce Schickert (9.5 ppg). The loss of Schickert inside leaves Rhinelander without a true forward and Lemmens said his team will need to get creative to overcome its size deficiency.
To do that, Lemmens is taking a page out of colleague Ryan Clark's playbook. The Hodag girls' basketball team has had success - and won a conference title last year -playing a pressing, uptempo game. Lemmens is hoping the boys' squad can do the same.
"We are playing small so instead of trying to play a half-court game, if someone has a lot of size, let's try to make this a full-court game," he said. "I'd like to see us be able to go nine deep in a game, really can we wear out their top guys and then, late in the game, our guys are fresher and can make the plays down the stretch."
Skeen, a 6-4 junior, came on toward the end of last year for the Hodags, averaging 7.5 points per game. His penchant for making 3s (he shot 40.8% from distance last year) earned him more minutes and, eventually, a starting spot late in the season.
"Ross can shoot. Ross has to continue to improve the other areas of the game and hunt his shot. When he's open though, I have great confidence that's going in," Lemmens said.
Rhinelander returns two other starters from last year including 6-foot senior Drake Martin. Though undersized, the football standout has the ability to mix it up inside and averaged 8.7 points and 4.2 rebounds a game last year. Senior Peyton Erikson also returns. The quick 5-8 shooting guard was a team-best 41.8% from 3-point range and averaged 8.4 points per game last year.
Other players with varsity experience are back, including junior guard Quinn Lamers and junior forward Kirk Mathews. Meanwhile sophomore point guard Jacksen Smith is expected to see more minutes this year, as is junior guard Jackson Labs, and 6-4 forward Travis Towne saw time with Rhinelander's top unit Friday in a scrimmage at Wausau West.
"We've got some guys with good varsity experience, even though not all-conference, we had guys that played a lot of varsity basketball. I'm hoping, early on, that's going to help us," Lemmens said. "We have a lot of guys that can do good things. I think the one thing we won't have this year is we won't have to rely on one guy, but we will have to rely on all of these guys playing together."
One thing is certain, if the Hodags are to improve on last season, they must improve on a defense that was downright dreadful at times last season. After allowing teams to score 60 points or more only 20 times during Lemmens' first eight seasons at the helm, Rhinelander gave up 60 points or more a whopping 18 times in 24 games last year. Overall, Rhinelander averaged 63.1 points allowed per game, by far its worst total during Lemmens' tenure.
"Again, our biggest goal right now, is get back to the gritty, hard-nosed defense that we want to take pride in. We've seen stretches of it, but it's something that needs to continue to improve," Lemmens said following a scrimmage Friday that saw the team primarily play man-to-man.
The Hodags wound up tied for fourth in the GNC last year - their worst finish in conference play since 2010-11. Where the Hodags finish in the GNC this year is anyone's guess. Last year Mosinee was undefeated in conference play with four teams separated by one game in positions two through five. Lemmens expects similar parity in the GNC this year.
"Mosinee's hand's down the favorite. They're returning some key players," he said. "I think Medford's right behind them, after watching Medford this summer. After that, I think it's anyone's game. I'm curious to see. I think we can be there, but we're not there yet."
Wausau West scrimmage
Friday's scrimmage was a mixed bag as the Hodags scrimmaged Wausau West, which is coached by Derek Lemmens' younger brother, Nate.
The two-hour practice was split in to four segments. Rhinelander had the edge when the teams worked on structured half-court and full-court play, Wausau West controlled a 30-minute session that most closely resembled true game action and both teams made one shot later in a situational session that simulated the offensive team trying to tie or win the game on a possession in the final seconds of regulation.
"We were a little frantic offensively, not as patient," Derek Lemmens said. "Defensively, we have moments but we still don't talk. We saw that in practice, too. We said, 'If you don't talk, bad things are going to happen.' When we were in the more structured settings, we were good. When we got into that initial 5-on-5 and things kind of went sour, we really didn't have anyone to pull it together on the court. We let them play through it and, if this was a game, we'd have been in a bad spot early. It's something to learn from."
Rhinelander took the half-court session 18-15 and the full court session 11-5. Wausau West caught fire during the scrimmage session, going 8-of-10 from 3-point range. The Warriors made their first five 3-point attempts as they raced out to a 19-4 lead early in the 30-minute session and cruised to a 38-27 win.
Towne led the way with 11 points during the event for Rhinelander while Smith had nine. Martin and junior Jackson Labs each scored seven points. Skeen finished with five points on 1-of-6 shooting - all from beyond the arc.
Rhinelander opens the season tonight with a playoff rematch at Shawano. The Hodags defeated the Hawks 78-65 in the WIAA tournament opener last February behind a 30-point night from Howard.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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