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Bellaire boys bid for bounce back season

Photo Provided PICTURED IS the 2020-21 Bellaire basketball team. Kneeling is manager Leo Regel. Front row, from left, are Lucas Littell, Joey Lewis, Isaiah Patterson, Creed Rhodes, Jadon Bellville, Andrew Littell, David Zwack, Nico Piergallini and Nathan Clifford. Standing, from left, are assistant coach Nathan Steele, assistant coach Nathan Regel, Jakob Dowling, Brenton Naumann, Jaren Cash, Jaiden Kesterson, Owen Ward, assistant coach Kyle Michalo and head coach J.R. Battista.

BELLAIRE — When you’re attempting to rebuild a program, any type of progress is a good thing.

As the 2019-20 season moved along, Bellaire saw progress as J.R. Battista began his second stint as the Big Reds head coach. The progress, however, isn’t totally defined in the 6-17 record they finished with.

“We got better as the year went on,” Battista said. “The kids took to everything we tried to do and, actually, we got much better and became much more competitive throughout the year.”

As the Big Reds inch closer to the start of another season, and with several key pieces returning, Battista has found that his team is clearly ahead of where it was at this point last season. However, taking that to the court and turning it into more success remains the goal.

“Last year, everything was new (to the kids), but during the second go-around, you get better at things as you do them more,” Battista said. “We’re better than we were last year, but I don’t know what that means in terms of wins and losses. We simply have to keep getting better every day.”

Battista is an admitted summer hoops junkie. Actually, he oversees the Wheeling Recreation Summer Leagues. Those leagues — actually no leagues or shootouts — were not held this summer due to the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone is in the same boat without having a summer,” Battista said. “We did the best we could with the conditions and protocols. We worked out as soon as we were allowed. We played against ourselves like every other team did and made the best of the hand we were dealt.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic rages on and many questions surround the season. Actually, the Big Reds — like most schools in the county — shifted to remote learning earlier this month and it led to a brief shutdown of practices and scrimmages.

“We had a scrimmage (at Edison) earlier in the month and we took every kid in our program for a few reasons,” Battista said. “Obviously, it was the first time we played against someone other than ourselves since last February and it serves as a diversion of what’s going on in the world just to get out and play.”

Battista realizes that quarantines, schedule changes and delays could be a thing this season. He’s simply trying to prepare his team as best as possible to handle any of the adversity that may come its way.

“We’re just trying to land the plane each day,” Battista said. “We’ve landed it well so far and that’s a tribute to the kids. This hasn’t been the normal school year for anyone. What we’re all dealing with isn’t in the teaching or coaching manual, so we’re all working through it together. I expect it to be a choppy season. The toughest part is you may get hot and win three in a row, but then you’re shut down for two weeks, so it could be tough to gain consistency.”

On the court, Battista believes his team “is more skilled with a little bit more athleticism” than it had a season ago. A lot of that comes, quite simply, from being a year older.

“We have some guys who have a lot of varsity experience,” Battista said. “We have to make shots. They call it basketball for a reason. We’re not going to shut people out. I think we have a couple of guys who have put a lot of time in and if they get a good look can knock down shots.”

Though he realizes shutouts won’t occur, Battista has stressed to his team that it must get better on the defensive end of the floor.

“We have to try harder on defense and I thought as last season went along, we did try harder,” Battista said. “You have to be able to dig down deep and get that key stop and rebound when you need it late in a game to be able to pull one out.”

Another point of emphasis this preseason has been taking care of the ball. Far too many times the Big Reds were victimized by turnovers. Many of those were of the live-ball variety, which led to run-out opportunities.

“I think we will be better handling the ball,” Battista said. “Some of that comes with having gotten bigger and stronger.”

Guard play will be a strength for the Big Reds with senior David Zwack (5-10) returning after a season in which he averaged 14 points a game.

“David’s a three-year starter and a hoops psycho,” Battista said. “He’s able to handle the ball and can get us into offense against pressure. He was a big reason why we were able to be more competitive last season and I think he’s ready to take another step forward.”

He’ll be joined in the backcourt by junior Owen Ward (6-0). He arrived at Bellaire from suburban Columbus just before basketball season last year. He was a solid shooter and showed some flashes.

“Owen wasn’t sure where the library (at the school) was at this time last year, but now that he’s been here, settled in and is accustomed to things, I think he’s ready to take a step forward,” Battista said. “He’s gotten bigger. He’s long. He’s really skilled and he’s aggressive.”

Junior Jaren Cash (6-1) is expected to move into a starting role. He saw limited time off the bench last season.

“Jaren has improved quite a bit,” Battista said. “He’s really filled in and he’s moving very well.”

Senior Creed Rhodes (6-0) will play on the interior. He’s a guy who can wear a lot of hats for the Big Reds.

“He’s a good defender, good rebounder, good passer, he’s gotten bigger, stronger and improved his skill,” Battista said.

Junior Jaiden Kesterson (6-0) returns to the lineup.

“Jaiden is a good defender, plays hard and he’s probably our best passer,” Battista said.

Senior Andrew Little (6-0) returns after seeing much of his junior season lost with a knee injury. He’s another solid shooter the Big Reds will rely on.

A pair of sophomores, Jake Dowling (6-1) and Brenton Naumann (6-0), are expected to round out the Big Reds’ eight-man varsity rotation.

Other working to get into the mix are seniors Jadon Bellville (6-3) and Isaiah Patterson (6-0) as well as junior Nico Piergallini (5-10).

“We want to be competitive in every game and by that, I mean be in games that can go either way down the stretch,” Battista said. “Being in every game is what we’re looking for. We’re a year older, a year faster, a year stronger. It’s tough to gauge, however, because we’ve not seen hardly anyone other than ourselves since basically last season.”

Ticketed primarily for jayvee duty are juniors Nathan Clifford (6-0), Joey Lewis (5-8), Lucas Little (6-0), freshmen Luca D’Aquila (5-10), Logan Edgar (5-10), Khalil Kimbro (5-10), Mac Mac Pettigrew (5-9), Dalton Smelko (6-0), Mason Soccer (6-2) and Drew White (5-10).

Battista’s coaching staff is also unchanged. Nate Regal, Kyle Michalo and Nathan Steele work with the varsity unit. Rafael Johnson and Tyler Stewart guide the junior high program.

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