Boys basketball: Ottawa hopes to find identity quickly

Pirates open season Monday in Dean Riley “Shootin’ The Rock” Thanksgiving Tournament

Ottawa’s Cooper Knoll eyes the basket over Princeton’s Tyson Phillips in the 2nd period in Kingman Gymnasium on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023 at Ottawa High School.

There are seasons when a high school basketball coach has a pretty good feel for the roster from the start. But for most, you’re dealing with at least a few questions.

“Every season brings with it different challenges,” Ottawa coach Mark Cooper said. “Some kids graduate, some are back for another season, and some are going to be playing at the varsity level for the first time.”

Cooper, who begins his 20th season, will look to fill in the gaps left by losing seven players – including top contributors in Levi Sheehan, Payton Knoll, Aiden Mucci and Conner Price – to graduation and returning only a couple of players with extensive experience.

“This is where you hope the strength of your entire program shows through,” Cooper said. “We have very good coaches at the lower levels, and our blueprint of how we do things, while it may get tweaked from season to season, doesn’t change a whole bunch.”

“Our Thanksgiving tournament, playing some really good teams right off the jump, is the first step in not only beginning to find that identity, but also what combinations work well. We find out who is capable of doing what and what some of our strengths and weaknesses are.”

—  Mark Cooper, Ottawa boys basketball coach

Ottawa finished 14-14 last season, including 9-5 throughout a rugged Interstate 8 Conference schedule.

“I feel like our identity is going to have to play itself out,” said Cooper, who has compiled a 321-188 career mark as the Pirates’ coach. “We return a few guys from last year and have added a large group of juniors.

“We are going to have to try and figure out, especially at our opening tournament and early in the season, what we are as a basketball team and what is going to allow us to have the most success.”

The two returning with the most varsity playing time are 6-foot-6 senior Cooper Knoll and 5-9 senior guard Huston Hart. Knoll averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds as a starter in the post last season, while Hart was normally one of the first players off the bench and posted averages of 5.7 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists.

Ottawa's Huston Hart plays defense against Sycamore's Preston Picolotti during their game Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, at Sycamore High School.

“[Knoll and Hart] both played a large number of minutes for us last year, and we are expecting them to be the stabilizing force on the floor for us early on,” Cooper said. “It may take the other kids a little while to become comfortable playing varsity basketball, so both of those guys are going to have a lot asked of them. That leadership may not even be in a statistical way, but more so keeping us playing at a comfortable pace.”

The Pirates’ roster also includes seniors Drake Kaufman (6-0), Keevon Peterson (5-9) and Lucas Goetz (6-3).

“We’ve made a living on having juniors sometimes having to serve a little bit of an apprenticeship role, then as a senior find a role to help the team,” Cooper said. “I think all five of our seniors, while they may not exactly know what that role is yet, are all striving to find that role and will do a tremendous job in whatever it ends up being.”

Juniors AJ Phalen (5-7), Kyler Araujo (6-0), Evan Snook (5-10), Connor Diederich (5-11), Tristan Finley (6-0), Deklan Gage (5-11), Seth Cooper (6-2) and Aric Treadgill, as well a sophomore Owen Sanders (6-5), round out the Ottawa squad.

Ottawa begins pool play in its own Dean Riley “Shootin’ The Rock” Thanksgiving Tournament at 6:30 p.m. Monday in historic Kingman Gym, taking on Princeton before challenging Pontiac at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and finally Marengo at 4 p.m. Friday. The placement games will be played Nov. 25.

“Our Thanksgiving tournament, playing some really good teams right off the jump, is the first step in not only beginning to find that identity, but also what combinations work well,” coach Cooper said. “We find out who is capable of doing what and what some of our strengths and weaknesses are.”