Storm enjoys historic season
Published 1:00 pm, Wednesday, March 16, 2016
NEW CANAAN — Some would say Drew Gladstone had a pretty easy job over the last two seasons as the St. Luke’s boys basketball coach.
Surely, anyone who watched the Storm play this season, winning both the FAA and NEPSAC Class C titles, could see the high-level of talent they possessed.
But what Gladstone was able to do in just his second season with the team speaks volumes from, as he put it, at psychological level.
“They have it; you have guys that if they were on another team they might be a go-to guy,” Gladstone said of his All-Star roster. “There’s a lot of psychology that goes into it. I had to make sure they understand that if we win as a team they win individually, these are kids, they all have egos, they all want to play at the highest level so it’s very difficult, but mostly it’s about them developing and trusting that what I say that is the way it goes.”
The young men in New Canaan did just that. With stars like Jalen Latta, Joel Boyce, Jonas Harper, sophomore role-player John Wisdom and ESPN Top-100 junior Walter Whyte, the Storm had enough ability to score pretty much at will, but it took all of them working together at both ends of the floor to bring back the hardware to St. Luke’s.
“Anybody that knows basketball knows if you have that amount of talent you have to get them on the same page or it can go wrong really quick,” Gladstone said. “Now that the season is over to see what we did it’s special and it’s more special in the sense that we did that with so much talent and playing team ball the way we did, that’s where the excitement comes from.”
Whyte — a 6-foot-5, 180-pound forward — was probably the player who benefited the most from the surrounding talent. Whyte, currently rated as a 3-star recruit by rivals.com and 24/7sports, averaged 19.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists for the 25-1 Storm. Boyce added 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds while Harper (13.5) and Latta (12.0) also contributed to St. Luke’s high scoring offense.
Despite his high talent and recruitment ranking, Whyte never had to be “the guy” for St. Luke’s thanks to depth of talent, instead he was able to focus and improve on parts of his game, like facilitating and outside shooting.
“I trusted my teammates to give them the ball I know they can handle their business with the ball,” said Whyte, who started his career at Simsbury High School before transferring to St. Luke’s. “It helped me focus on being more of a facilitator and more of a playmaker and it helped my game grow and a lot of coaches have said my game has grown this year.”
If there was one thing the St. Luke’s roster lacked this season it was depth.
The team only had eight varsity players, and only used seven with any regularity, but the two primary bench players, Shannon Smith and Andrew Varoli, added more to the team than most benches could hope.
Smith was the most improved player on the roster; as a senior he was relegated to bench duty and saw very limited minutes for the majority of his career, but when Gladstone made him a captain going into his final season he embraced the role, often changing the momentum of games with his high motor and perimeter defense, as well as his ability to hit the 3.
“I can’t say enough about Shannon, he played three years where he played very limited amount of minutes,” Gladstone said of Smith, who endured a winless season and a 2-22 year during his career at St. Luke’s. “This year he came in as a senior captain he came in in shape and mentally prepared for the season and was willing to do whatever it takes. I’ve known Shannon the longest on the team and to see him go from a kid who barely plays to a kid in huge moments was great.”
Smith hit two free throws in the final minutes of the NEPSAC championship to ice the 74-68 win over Pingree for the Storm.
The other reserve, Varoli, knows a thing or two about icing games.
The sharpshooter would often sit quietly for the first 12 minutes of each half before entering the game, the No. 3 on his back as much of a warning to other teams as a way to identify him on the score sheet.
Varoli would camp outside the 3-point line and drill shot after shot, tearing apart defenses that were focused on guarding the high-flying drivers that St. Luke’s would roll out there. The junior marksman made a team-high 56 3-pointers, shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
“Andrew blew a lot of games wide open for us with his shooting,” Gladstone said of Varoli, who several times led the Storm in points despite playing limited minutes. “He stayed confident, we put a lot of confidence into him, guys looked for him when he was in the game and that’s something that feeds itself.”
If at any time during the season the Storm got complacent, they would remember what they were playing for, their two seniors, Latta — who scored his 1,000 point with St. Luke’s during the season — and Smith.
“That was the biggest goal of the season,” Whyte said. “If we had no one else to play for we played for our seniors, we wanted to give them the one championship they always wished for at St. Luke’s.”
With the success of the year, and only losing two players, the Storm once again have championship aspirations heading into next season but know the target on their back will be even bigger — something they’ve become quite accustomed to.
“Obviously we set the bar pretty high this year,” Gladstone said. “We conditioned ourselves to be ready for post-season play by treating every game like the championship because for some of the teams our game was their championship. Our preparation going into this game and our mindset was to never relax so that’s what we want to do within the program, never get too comfortable, stay hungry.”