The primary objective for any sports team is to improve as the season progresses.
And the Vandalia Community High School boys basketball squad can rest assured as it looks back on the 2007-08 season that it did just that.
‘In every area possible, without question’ said Vandals coach Kevin Jackson. ‘The improvement from June to the end of February was tremendous.’
The numbers pretty much tell the tale.
In their first 10 games – all defeats – a group of inexperienced and oftentimes overwhelmed Vandals struggled mightily adjusting to the varsity level.
They averaged just 45.5 points per game during that span, doing so despite shooting a respectable 44 percent from the field.
It was no secret what ailed VCHS offensively, as an unsightly turnover rate – approaching 18 per game – helped the opposition heave up 70 more field goal attempts than the Vandals.
Coupled with shaky foul shooting (53 percent), it was a formula for frustration in the months of November and December.
‘Unfortunately, it hindered us from scoring points,’ said Jackson of his team’s ball-handling woes. ‘We didn’t get a whole lot of attempts, and we didn’t get a whole lot of second chances.’
But what a difference a month can make.
After showing flashes of promise in January, a group that was primarily playing at the JV or freshman levels last year suddenly coalesced into a formidable varsity squad.
It all started with a Feb. 5 Senior Night overtime upset of South Central, as the Vandals did something they’d struggled to do all year – close out a tight game against a quality opponent.
The victory gave the Vandals a much-needed confidence boost, and they would go on to play their best basketball of the season in their final four regular-season games.
The Vandals averaged 63.5 ppg over that span, hitting 51 percent from the field and 64 percent from the line – all drastic improvements over their outputs during the first three months of the season.
And though their turnover rate remained a bit too high (roughly 17 per game) it was clear to anyone who saw the Vandals back in November that this was a team much more comfortable in its varsity skin.
‘When you start taking care of the basketball and become comfortable knowing you’re going to be getting the ball up and down the floor, then you can be more comfortable taking shots,’ Jackson said. ‘Everything is more natural.
‘We weren’t able to get rid of (the turnovers) totally, but there was progress.’
To such a degree, that Jackson’s ambitious preseason goal of having his team in position to compete for a regional title by the end of the season – something that might have seemed absurd to anyone who saw the Vandals struggle mightily in the season-opening St. Anthony Tournament – actually came to fruition.
The Vandals entered the Pana Regional flush with optimism, winners of three of their final four games, with the one loss coming in triple-overtime at Roxana.
A improbable regional-title run seemed possible, considering the Vandals had just beaten their opening-round opponent (Pana), and had victories over their potential semifinal opponent (top-seeded Shelbyville) and their potential title-game foe (Staunton).
But as was the case all too often, VCHS was unable to pull out a close game, as Pana ended the Vandals’ season with a heartbreaking 48-47 loss in the quarterfinal round.
The Panthers would go on to claim an unlikely regional title, while the Vandals were left to ponder what could have been after their 10th loss by 10 points or less.
The final such defeat left the Vandals with a 5-23 record.
‘Obviously, nobody was happy with the won-loss record,’ said Jackson of a mark that included a 2-8 record in the SCC-East. ‘But we did get better and put ourselves in position to be in ballgames. Unfortunately, we came up short too many times.
‘We were able to do a lot of things right, but we were unable to come out on top.’
Despite the frustration that came with so many narrow defeats, the Vandals showed tremendous character throughout a trying and oftentimes tumultuous season.
‘I think that was one of the great things about this team,’ Jackson said. ‘They came in every day ready to go. They wanted to get better every day.’
Setting the tone were the Vandals’ two seniors – shooting guard Brenden Wasmuth and power forward Mitch Johnson.
The duo was asked to take team leadership roles after serving as reserves during their junior seasons.
But not only did they embrace their new roles with grace – they parlayed long-awaited opportunities to start at the varsity level into all-conference seasons.
Wasmuth wound up leading the Vandals in scoring (10.8 ppg) and assists (81), earning a spot on the all-SCC-East second team.
Johnson wound up leading the Vandals in rebounding (5.1 per game) and was second in scoring (10.1 ppg), earning an all-SCC East honorable mention.
Not bad for a pair of players who entered the season with a combined 58 career varsity points.
‘They’re going to be missed,’ Jackson said. ‘They did a lot for this team.
‘Our hope is that new kids move up into those roles and evolve into solid players. Mitch and Brenden did that. They were certainly better than when they were juniors. They handled a tough situation with a lot of class.’
Despite losing their senior leaders, the Vandals future appears bright with 10 of their 12 varsity players coming back next year.
Among that group are four players who saw significant starting time in 2007-08.
After a tough start, junior Drew Bell emerged as a scoring threat late in the season, pumping in just under 16 points per game in his final six contests. He will be the Vandals’ leading returning scorer after averaging 8.2 ppg this past season.
Six-foot-three forward Will Cowger showed flashes of dominance in the paint during his sophomore season – going for 24 points against Hillsboro and 20 against Greenville – and will look for more consistency his junior year.
Dylan Durr was thrust into an unenviable position – taking the point guard reins as a sophomore – but he performed admirably, playing arguably the most important position on the floor.
The wispy 5-7 guard will look to add some muscle in the weight room this summer.
Five-foot-10 junior Austin Wollerman held his own inside against bigger opponents during his first varsity season, thanks in large part to tremendous hustle.
Freshman Marty Johnson played at a level that belied his youth, giving every indication he’s in for a great varsity career.
Guard Angel Osorio and 6-7 forward/center Quinn Phillips figure to be in the varsity mix as well after helping the JV squad compile an 8-8 record with averages of 10.1 and 7.7 ppg, respectively.
‘I feel good about where we’re at,’ Jackson said. ‘I can look down the road and certainly and see some (positive) things.’
Still, don’t expect the Vandals to be satisfied with the improvement they showed late in the season.
‘We’ve got a lot of options back and a lot of guys that improved a great amount,’ Jackson said. ‘The downfall is, we have improved – but we have to improve more.’
And their blueprint for continued improvement will be a familiar one: hard work.
‘That’s the way it’s going to be, year-in, year-out,’ Jackson said. ‘With this coaching staff and team, it doesn’t matter if we’re 25-3 or the other way around – we’re going to work our butts off every year.’
The Vandals will return to work this summer with a busy slate that includes four home shootouts in June (9-10, 12-13, 23-24 and 26-27).
The goal heading into the 2008-09 season will be twofold: continued improvement, and results in the win column.
‘I’ll be very honest,’ Jackson said. ‘It’s varsity basketball, so we want to win basketball games.’