Believing they can be better than they’ve been.
That was the biggest challenge facing the Buchanan High School boys basketball team this season, said head coach Pat Geil.
When the team raced to a 9-2 record before Christmas, that belief received a major boost. “You have to win games,” Geil said. “There’s just no way around it.”
Other elements of a successful season seem in place for the Bears, as well.
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Senior leadership. A talented center. Players who can shoot. Strong defense.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Geil said. “Their overall mentality — it’s just refreshing to see them commit, play tough, and play the kind of basketball we want to play here.”
This is Geil’s third season as head coach. He teaches government and economics in addition to coaching the basketball team.
Last season, the Bears went 15-15 overall and 5-5 in the Tri-River Athletic Conference.
Buchanan started building momentum at the end of last season by beating four TRAC opponents — three of them ranked. “It was a good run, and we needed that moving forward,” Geil said.
More good signs appeared last June when Buchanan players — competing as a club team — improved their mental approach to the game.
Unlike in past years, Buchanan now has strong senior leadership, Geil said. “We’ve had good players in the past, but we haven’t had guys who held other players accountable as well as themselves,” he said. Team captains Trey Mayhew, Phillip Fane and Ardie Burton have led the way.
“They’ve been in the program, and they’re tired of losing or being mediocre,” Geil said. “They want to be winners.”
Meanwhile, 6-foot-8 junior center Spencer Heimerdinger provides a strong inside presence. Geil calls him the best low-post player now playing in the Valley and the best he’s coached.
Heimerdinger’s footwork and skill around the basket are exceptional, Geil said.
In games before Christmas, Heimerdinger was the second-leading scorer for the Bears, averaging about 19 points a game. Senior Tyree Leggett was the leading scorer with about 22 points a game.
“We have some good athletes and guys who can shoot the ball,” Geil said. They also include sophomore Jonah Crumpton-Murray, junior Kevin Hogue and Mayhew.
However, Geil wants the Bears to forge their identity at the other end of the court.
“We want to defend. We want to rebound. We want to get out and run and share the basketball,” he said. “That’s who we really want to be.”
This season’s team embraces that philosophy as well as any team he’s had, Geil said. He coached for seven seasons at San Joaquin Memorial High School (six as head coach) before coming to Buchanan. His players at Memorial included twins Brook and Robin Lopez, who attended Stanford University and now play in the NBA, for the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls, respectively. Quincy Pondexter, now playing for the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA, played with the Lopezes at Memorial.
Geil sees improved communication as another sign that the Bears are headed in the right direction. Players on the bench aren’t only cheering but shouting out screens, Geil said: “They’re talking in basketball language. Our motto is communication fixes mistakes, and it prevents mistakes.”
Getting the most from players coming off the bench is one of the team’s challenges. Geil said they’re talented but need to show greater consistency in games.
The Bears start TRAC play in early January. “We think we’ll be in the mix.” Geil said, and he has challenged his team with the fact that Buchanan has never won a Central Section championship in boys basketball.
“We want to fix that, and probably the biggest thing was getting commitment from the players,” Geil said.
Fans have noticed the difference this season.
“The kids deserve the credit for that,” Geil said. “This group has learned that you can’t wait for things to happen. You have to make them happen. We have a great group of kids, and I think they’re ready.”
Ardie Burton, senior
Braden Clarke, junior
Jonah Crumpton-Murray, sophomore
Phillip Fane, senior
Parker George, senior
Declan Glasener, junior
Spencer Heimerdinger, junior
Josh Hernandez, senior
Kevin Hogue, junior
Dayveein Isumu, sophomore
Mannan Lateef, senior
Tyree Leggett, senior
Jordan Luna, junior
Trey Mayhew, senior
Jefferson Moore, senior
Anthony Tolbert, junior
Jordan Wynn, senior