BAKER — Mike Martello has been through good and bad times as the Baker boys basketball coach.
Now in the ninth year at his alma mater, Martello likes what he sees from this year’s version of the Gators, a team that is young at certain positions.
“I think we’ve got the potential and I’m optimistic about that,” he said. “We’ve just got to put it all together because we’ve got some kids that haven’t played a lot together on the varsity court. Putting on that game uniform is a whole different mentality.”
While the Gators will be young in spots, Baker also has veteran varsity players at several key positions to offset some players lost to graduation.
“We’ve got three returners from last year and one of those is our point guard, Josh Hartzog, and that’s always good to have some experience there,” Martello said. “Garrett (Sanders) is our post player and he was our post player last year. Justin Morgan saw some starts last year as well and he’s a returner.
“We lost probably our two biggest scorers in Danny Spicer and Dylan Dunford, so we’ve got some holes to fill on offense this year. We’ve got a couple of sophomores (Brooks Taylor and Austin Hicks) coming off our JV team who give us a little bit of outside shooting ability, I believe. Hopefully, they are going to come along faster than normal and fill in those two holes for us because that’s really where the two scorers did most of their damage from outside.”
In addition to Spicer and Dunford, the Gators lost Steven Grant to graduation. Grant, who also played football, could drive the lane and battle for rebounds as well as hit the occasional outside shot.
Martell hopes that football/basketball players Austin Martin and Richard Stroheker will do some of the things Grant did.
“Both of those guys are kind of an inside player and more defensive than anything else and they should do a good job for us,” Martello, who played basketball and football in high school, said. “One of the benefits of having played football is there’s a toughness about them that is always a plus.”
The team’s youth is evident on the roster, where Sanders and Adrian Smith are the team’s only seniors. Last year, Smith was the Gator player rotation’s eighth man; Martello expects him to move up in the rotation and be a key contributor coming off the bench.
Martello understands small school athletics’ cyclical nature, having been through seasons when he was forced to place eighth-graders and freshman on the varsity.
The veteran coach believes Baker is nearing the end of a down/younger cycle.
“I think we are on the bottom of the down slope of the cycle or maybe on the rise again,” he said. “We had the three or four years where those eighth- and ninth-graders came through and they were very successful years for us. In three years, I graduated 22 seniors.
“Last year, it was four more seniors and we are kind of at the bottom of that little trough there. Now, I think we’ve got some really good middle school kids coming up and I’m really excited about that group. And I think this group of mostly juniors that we have this year is going to be pretty good.”
Baker has seemed to weather a down cycle and seems ready to climb back toward the upper half of a tough District 2-1A. But that district includes defending state champion Chipley and a Holmes County team that features senior post player Chris Walker, the No. 9 ranked recruit in the nation.
Early in the season, there is time to think big about what can happen as the year progresses.
“I really like the enthusiasm this year,” Martello said. “This year, we are only going to have two seniors and I see how enthusiastic they (the players) are about this season. They’ve put a lot of hard work into the off season so I think they have a lot of potential.”
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at email@example.com, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524