With seven sophomores and three freshmen on its 13-player roster, the Orono Red Riots are among the youngest boys basketball teams around.
Coach Ed Kohtala’s club also is emerging as one of the best teams in the region after securing its fourth straight victory and improving its record to 9-2 with a 60-46 victory over visiting Hermon on Friday evening.
Sophomore point guard Pierce Walston showed off his versatility while leading the way with 24 points and six assists for the Red Riots, who began the night ranked fourth in Class B North.
“In the first six games of the season we had five different lineups, but now I feel like we’re beginning to hit our stride in terms of the rotation and guys knowing how to play together,” Kohtala said.
Orono never trailed after Walston opened the game with a long 3-pointer followed by a steal that led to a three-point play that gave the Red Riots a 6-0 advantage barely a minute into the contest.
Walston went on to make 9 of 17 shots from the field and 4 of 5 from the free-throw line, with his offensive arsenal ranging from a pair of 25-foot 3-pointers to drives to the rim and virtually everything in between.
“We were talking about roles within our team a couple of days ago, and I said without question the toughest role was the one Pierce has to play,” Kohtala said.
“He often is matched up against the best offensive player from the other team, and we look for him to score and we look for him to distribute. Any one of those assignments is a tough one, and balancing those as a sophomore — I think he’s doing a great job with it.”
Walston finished the opening quarter with 12 points as Orono built a 17-12 lead, then the Red Riots maintained a 26-18 halftime cushion despite Hermon establishing more of a halfcourt pace at both ends of the court during the second quarter.
Hermon scored the first four points of the period and drew within 17-16 on a follow-up basket by freshman Owen Wyman.
Orono then came out of a timeout and outscored the Hawks 9-2 during the final 5:47 of the second quarter, a run capped off when Walston fed Ellis Spaulding for the first of his three 3-pointers in the game and assisted freshman Noah Schaff for a layup with a minute left before intermission.
“It comes from trust,” said Walston of his freedom to create offensively both for himself and his teammates. “They trust me a lot and I trust them a lot. If I have a fast break and I see one of them open, I’m going to hit them if that’s a better opportunity. That’s what we’re about, taking good opportunities and converting on them. That’s the goal.”
The Red Riots broke the game open in the third quarter, outscoring Hermon 16-4 during the first five minutes after the break.
Walston again was a catalyst, scoring nine points during the run on a drive, two free throws, a 3-pointer and a layup after a steal to make it 42-22.
Hermon crept back within 46-32 when junior guard Xavier Jelks fed Wyman for a layup in the opening minute of the fourth quarter but Orono sophomore guard Ben Francis scored six of his 13 points during the game’s final four minutes to help the Red Riots preserve their second victory over the Hawks.
Francis shot 6 of 8 from the field for Orono and added five rebounds while Spaulding went 3-for-4 from beyond the 3-point arc for his nine points. Senior center Javier Alicea-Santiago and freshman forward Will Francis contributed six points each for the Red Riots.
“In all my years of coaching I’ve never coached a team as young as this so I know the challenges that young teams face,” Kohtala said. “But they’ve embraced it and they’ve fought through it. When we haven’t looked so good they’ve responded to coaching and when we’ve had good runs we’ve shared the ball.
“They’re growing. They’re improving, and I’m having a great time working with them.”
Senior forwards Trey Brown and Noah Miles paced Hermon (4-5) with 13 and 10 points, respectively, while Jelks added eight points, all in the second half.