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Athletes can be creatures of habit, settling into the roles pre-determined by their coaches.
That sounds great — until the season starts.
Take the Vernon Hills boys basketball team, for example. The Cougars are barely into December and already they’re down two starters. Those pre-slotted roles? Forget about it.
“I think some of the minutes have increased for some guys,” coach Matt McCarty said. “The place it’s the hardest is the matchup defense. That will come with more experience.”
The Cougars will be learning on the fly.
In the team’s Thanksgiving tournament game against Maine East Nov. 19, senior forward Trenton Fulton rolled his right ankle. He is out indefinitely and missed the team’s 70-44 loss to Carmel Nov. 28. Using a next-man-up philosophy, senior TJ Flis filled in admirably.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior was expected to provide rebounding and muscle in the paint. But with Fulton out, Flis had to do more.
In the first half, Flis scored six of his nine points in transition. Filling the wing, he used his speed and athleticism on run outs, keeping the Cougars competitive against a deeper, more skilled Carmel team.
“(Coming into) this year, my focus is on defense and rebounding. I don’t care if I score as long as I’m flying around and doing the dirty work,” Flis said. “The past couple of games, I’ve been on the scoreboard. I wasn’t expecting that.”
That’s what happens when plans get made. They get changed, adjusted and tweaked.
After a collision during a Thanksgiving tournament game, senior Nate Rathod was diagnosed with a concussion. He also missed the Carmel game. Rathod was the Cougars’ leading three-point shooter last season, nailing 39 shots from long range.
Someone had to step in, and against Carmel, it was senior Dylan McNamara. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound guard gave Vernon Hills a shooting threat, drilling two three-pointers and tying Fils and Robbie Nardini for a team-high with nine points.
“Coach asks me to shoot well and play good, smart defense,” McNamara said. “I knew we weren’t scoring so I had to step up.”
As Vernon Hills enters its challenging NSC Prairie Division schedule, it will need players like Flis and McNamara to accept their defined roles. But as the Cougars are learning, they might be asked to do more.
“We will be healthy at some point,” McCarty said. “Hopefully we will get there.”