Owen basketball poised to compete in conference

Fred McCormick

Basketball is a game of bounces. A good bounce can thread the needle to a teammate in stride and give them an opportunity for an easy lay-up. A bad one can make what would have been an easy bucket seem like a scene on an icy driveway.

Last year, it seemed like Owen basketball teams couldn’t get any traction; both teams failed to meet the expectations of their coaches. But now things are bouncing the right way for the Warhorses boys team and the Warlassies girls team.

The Warhorses opened their season by winning four of eight nonconference games. Head coach Chuck Robinson credits an improved team chemistry and work ethic for the energized start.

“These boys are a team,” he said. “They worked together during the summer and worked with the team at Warren Wilson. They stay focused on basketball and do everything together. This team is really more like family.”

The bond among the Warhorses has resulted in a smoother style of play on the court, a style whose active defense creates points by forcing turnovers.

“Our defense has really stepped up this year,” Robinson said. “That has really helped us to be faster in transition. We really want to play excellent defense.”

Robinson’s strategy has helped to create opportunities for his guard-heavy team, with sophomore point guard Ben Craig and junior shooting guard Brian Bartlett reaping the benefits. Bartlett is the team’s leading scorer and is averaging around two steals each game. Craig is consistently scoring in double digits and jockeying with Bartlett for the most steals on the team.

Statistics tell only part of the story for the Warhorses this season. Craig has been fearless when driving to the basket, according to Robinson.

Bartlett has been able to score by creating his own shots when the team needs it.

The length of 6-foot-5 sophomore center Mathew Brown has had an impact as well. The stand-out from last year’s junior varsity squad has been a quick study, according to his coach.

“I knew he was going to be a great asset to our team this year,” Robinson said. “Our players know that we can go to Mathew, and they have confidence in him. He’s going to leave it all out on the floor just like I want all of them to do.”

The transformation for the Warlassies has not been quite as drastic, but the results have been just as impressive.

Coach Tim Raines opened the season by guiding the Warlassies to a 6-3 record through nine non-conference games, including a 30-point blowout of Chase in November.

Much of the team’s success has been the play of freshman Chesney Gardner, who led the team in scoring (13.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.4 rebounds per game) through the first nine games.

Her addition has given the Warlassies a physical presence to complement a plethora of athletic perimeter players.

“She is so strong. She may be the strongest player on our team,” Raines said. “For her to come in as a freshman with that body type enables her to get in there and bang a little bit. She’s doing a pretty good job blocking shots, and she’s been our leading rebounder all year.”

Gardner’s presence around the basket has served as a catalyst for the team that is committed to pushing the ball down the court when possession changes sides.

The style has also allowed sophomore Dee Graves more opportunities to score as well.

“Dee is kind of sneaky, and what I mean by that is that you don’t really realize that she’s scored 20 points until you look at the stats after the game,” Raines said. “She runs the floor well, and she’s one of your bigger players. So she’ll get the rebound and throw the outlet pass and get down the floor. Ashley (Valencia) and Kendal (Marlow) are really good at finding her.”

Both Owen teams are poised to make a strong push in the Western Highlands Conference, according to their coaches.

“This is a tough conference,” Robinson said. “But we set a goal to contend for the conference championship and I think that we can do that. I think winning four games and being .500 before going into conference play has really boosted our confidence.”

Raines will continue to rely on scoring contributions from Gardner and Graves.

But his team’s overall athleticism will be what keeps the Warlassies competitive in the conference.

“I really do believe that if we really believe as a team that we belong at the top of the conference that we’ll compete,” he said. “Physically, I know that we can compete. I don’t see any team in the conference that has all-around better athletes from top to botton. Even though our players are young, their athletic ability and basketball ability are both really strong.”