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Bellaire hopes to utilize speed and athleticism

BELLAIRE — When Bellaire head coach J.R. Battista surveys his roster and team he admits this is probably his most athletic team since he returned to the bench three years ago.

However, the former Big Reds all-stater and West Liberty Hilltopper also realizes that doesn’t always equate to victories either.

“We have some pieces back, who have grown, matured, gotten a little bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled,” Battista said. “But, you just never know how a season is going to play out.”

Obviously, Battista likes the initial make up of his club. He believes his team will be able to bother opponents because of its foot speed and length. But, he also points out the preseason has been fragmented because of the extended football season and many of his players nursed some nagging injuries.

“Sometimes your biggest opponents during a season aren’t always the other team,” Battista said. “Whether you’re dealing with injuries, illness, discipline, etc., there are a lot of factors that go into a season. My uncle (Gene Ammirante) used to say, and he’s correct, ‘usually, you beat yourself more often than the other team beats you.'”

The Big Reds are coming off a season in which they had their hands full not only with the schedule, but with the COVID-19 pandemic. They endured a two-week pause and Battista dealt with the loss of his father, Bob, to COVID. Still, however, the Big Reds managed to get a full, 22-game regular season schedule played.

“It was obviously tough for everyone to navigate through everything that last year brought,” Battista said. “Through it all, I thought our kids and administration did a really good job of being able to get 22 games in. It could have been easy to bail out, but we found games and there was never a hesitation from our administration about playing.”

The Big Reds lost OVAC All-Star Game participant David Zwack, Creed Rhodes and Andrew Littell to graduation from that squad.

As they turned their attention to the new season, which tipped off last week at Bridgeport, Battista and his team endured a relatively normal offseason.

“Having a full summer of playing and getting to workout with very restrictions should help, but everyone else had that opportunity, too,” Battista said. “If we were able to do those things in a vacuum, then it would have been great.”

The Big Reds expect to be a better team defensively this season. In doing so, they’re going to employ more of a full-court look, hoping to cause teams to speed up much more than they want to.

“We have to be able to guard in the half court, too,” Battista stressed. “Against good team, who can handle the ball, we’re not going to just turn them over. We have to get stops in the half court and rebound the ball.”

Offensively, the Big Reds hope the defense predicates their offense. Capitalizing on those turnovers could be crucial to the offensive success.

All told, the Big Reds plan to employ an eight-man rotation, but Battista noted that as many as 10 players could make an impact at the varsity level.

“In terms of body size, athletic ability and skill level, there isn’t a huge drop-off in our top eight,” Battista said. “I know it’s cliche, but we’re just trying to get better every day. We want to be better today than we were yesterday.”

Leading the way for the Big Reds is senior Jaren Cash, who is coming off a break-out junior season in which he averaged 15.1 points a game.

“Jaren can get you in a lot of ways,” Battista said. “He’s nursed an ankle injury, but he’s getting better every day and we think he can have a good season.”

Senior guard Owen Ward is embarking on his third season as a significant contributor. He’s coming off a solid campaign in which he scored 12.3 points a game and his 43 bonus goals.

“Owen’s a really skilled player, who has grown and filled in (physically),” Battista said. “He shoots it really well. Plus, he has a good take and handle.”

Senior Jaiden Kesterson returns. He’s not a scorer, but is a capable defender and rebounder for the Big Reds.

“Jaiden does a lot of things that don’t show up in the boxscore,” Battista said.

Junior Jakob Dowling, who was thrust into the lineup last season, will take on a much greater role. He averaged almost seven points a game and buried 27, 3-pointers.

“Jake is a very athletic kid, who has really improved his shooting,” Battista said.

Junior Ray Ray Pettigrew returns to the squad after not playing last year. Battista believes he will have an immediate impact because of his speed and athleticism.

“Ray Ray can cause a lot of havoc on the defensive end,” Battista said. “He’s a lot better offensively than many realize. He’s probably our best passer and has a good take to the bucket.”

Junior Mayson Sochor, who had a brilliant track season last spring, will look to be an impact performer on the hardwood, too.

“Mayson is a long, athletic kid who is a good scorer around the bucket,” Battista said. “He is also a good rebounder.”

Sophomore Mac Mac Pettigrew will be in the mix for minutes off the bench along with junior Brenton Naumann.

Senior Danny Zwack and sophomore Luca D’Aquila could also be called upon for significant varsity action.

The balance of the roster includes: senior Darian Bell, juniors Nathan Clifford, Lucas Littell and sophomore Drew White.

The Big Reds also have 14 freshmen out for the sport. While some will see time with the junior varsity squad, Bellaire will field a separate freshman team.

“Being banged up from football concerns me because we’ve had guys miss some practices and you only have so many days (to prepare),” Battista said. “But, at the same time, the success we had football is a good thing because you hope that (winning) mentality and culture carries over to basketball because it’s many of the same kids.”

Bellaire’s lone schedule change is the addition of Cambridge for a pair as the new members of the Buckeye 8 South. Monroe Central is off the slate. The Big Reds will also take part in the Watt/Neese Classic at Steubenville Big Red against Steubenville Catholic Central.

Battista’s coaching staff includes Nate Regal as the JV coach, Nathan Steele guides the frosh, while Tyler Stewart and Sam Karrasch direct the junior high.

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