CEDAR BLUFFS -- The learning curve isn’t quite as big this year for the Cedar Bluffs boys basketball team.
That’s because the squad isn’t adjusting to a new coach this season. Clay Shepard is entering his second season guiding the Wildcats.
“I feel like we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year just because they know what to expect,” Shepard said.
The Wildcats finished last season with a 10-12 mark. New players will need to step up this season as Cedar Bluffs lost its top four leading scorers – who combined for nearly 35 points a game – from a year ago due to graduation and transfers.
Shepard believes that loss led to a greater sense of urgency from the returning players during the offseason.
“They knew that we lost some key pieces and they knew they were going to have bigger roles this year,” Shepard said. “This summer we were up (at the school) pretty much every morning. … Almost everybody that was returning got to 10,000 shots in. I can tell in just a couple of practices that we’re hitting shots at a higher rate than we were last year.”
Senior Grant Pleskac is the lone returning starter for the Wildcats. Pleskac, a 5-foot-8 point guard, averaged 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds a contest as a junior. He led the team in assists, distributing 2.3 a game.
“He’s really embraced leading by example this year,” Shephard said of his senior point guard. “He knows exactly what I expect offensively and defensively. ... I would expect his averages to go up quite a bit. (Last season) he played a lot of minutes with those other four and they all shot the ball a lot, so he was doing a lot of passing.”
Chris Vasquez (5-9 guard) and Ethan Schutt (6-2 forward), both returning letterwinners, join Pleskac as seniors of this year’s squad.
Vasquez averaged 2.1 points and 2.1 rebounds a year ago while Schutt contributed 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds a game.
“Chris played a ton of minutes,” Shephard said. “I think he was fourth on our team in minutes actually, even coming off the bench, so he has a ton of experience.”
Shephard has been pleased by Schutt’s dedication in the offseason.
“He’s a kid who put in a lot of work this summer,” the head coach said. “He played a fair amount of minutes last year and his role is going to change a ton. He has some size and hopefully we can take advantage of some mismatches with him this year.”
Juniors Gabe Anaya (5-11) and Brody Ptomey (6-0), both linemen on the Wildcats’ football team, return as post players.
Sophomore Zephan Kluthe also is a returning letterwinner, however, he has been hampered by injury. Kluthe (6-0) suffered a meniscus tear early in the football season, so he has not been able to practice.
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“We’re looking forward to getting him back,” Shephard said of Kluthe. “He had a really good summer. He put in a lot of work.”
A pair of newcomers – Rawa Mohammdi and Dominick Classen – also are expected to contribute for Cedar Bluffs this season.
Mohammdi, a 6-3 sophomore, is a foreign exchange student who has played basketball in his home country of Norway.
“It’s a little different style of basketball, so he’s kind of had to adjust a little bit,” Shephard said. “He didn’t play football this fall, so we kind of had some time to work a little bit with a couple of the other guys who don’t play football. He’s picking it up. … I would expect him to contribute. We’ll play plenty of guys and I’ll say he’ll definitely be one of them.”
Classen is a 5-6 freshman who will help add depth at point guard.
“He’s having to take on a different role,” Shephard said of Classen. “Last year in middle school he had to be the guy and do a lot of scoring. Now he’s adjusting to more of a point guard role which is how I think he feels most comfortable.
“When we want to get Grant a break or when we want to run something different with maybe Grant at the 2, he’s looked very comfortable handling the ball in practice so far. I’m looking forward to what he can do.”
One area where Shephard knows the Wildcats need to see improvement is on defense, but he believes they have the personnel this season to play better team defense.
“This year I think we have guys who really want to play hard on that end of the floor,” he said. “We’ll hopefully kind of rely on that and not need to score as much just because we can really lock people up.”
With a smaller lineup, rebounding also is a concern.
“I think we’ll get it figured out and it will be fine,” Shephard said. “Grant does a good job of rebounding and Chris does a good job of rebounding from the guard position. Plus, we’ll throw some of those linemen in there and let them bang around down low a little bit.”
Replacing the top four scorers from last season will force the Wildcats to be a bit more creative on offense this year, Shephard said, but it’s a challenge the second-year coach and his team is embracing.
“A lot of times they say the biggest jump is from year one to year two,” he said. “We lost a lot of our scoring and lost a lot of our rebounding, but I don’t think that should hold us back. I think we have a lot of guys coming back. We have a lot of raw talent in the building, so I expect to just keep going up. I don’t think there’s any reason for us to take a step back this year.”
The Wildcats open their season at home on Thursday against East Butler.