SACKETS HARBOR — Even with all its success this season, all five starters in the lineup for Sackets Harbor’s boys basketball team, and many of its supporting cast, are just underclassmen.
This not only bodes well for the future of the program in coming years, but for the Patriots, who will compete for a Section 3 championship Sunday, the future is now.
Led by versatile junior guard Austin Griner, top-seeded Sackets Harbor (22-1) will square off against second-seeded Hamilton (20-3) in the Class D sectional title game at 11 a.m. at Onondaga Community College’s SRC Arena.
“I feel like everyone’s really excited to play,” Patriots’ junior guard Griner said. “It’s a championship game, so it’s going to be fun and I think we’re going to do good.”
The Patriots’ starting five also includes a quartet of sophomores with forwards Marcus Castine, Ethan Shi, Ethan Tracy and guard Jake Peters.
“You don’t see that a lot,” Robbins said. “I just talked about that tonight at our sports banquet, we came into the start of this season with five sophomores, two juniors, we have two seniors, but really our rotation is five sophomores and two juniors and even a freshman played a little bit here and there. But of those guys, six of those underclassmen played really important minutes for us last year on a team that went 20-2.
“Their roles were obviously smaller, Austin had a large role, but everyone’s role obviously expanded. But they were on the floor playing in those big games, those close games, the playoff game we played last year against Belleville (Henderson) at JCC was just packed, so they obviously played in that big-game atmosphere, so it doesn’t really faze them.”
Sackets Harbor isn’t short on experience as after losing a first-round home sectional game last season, the team has won three consecutive games in this tournament, capped by a 68-63 semifinal win against West Canada Valley last weekend, also at OCC.
“I think we’ve got kids that are gamers, they like that big opportunity, they like to play in front of people,” Robbins said. “I don’t think we’re going to be scared of the moment, if we don’t play well I don’t think it’s going to be anything to do with the moment being too big.”
Griner led the charge for the Patriots in the semifinal win as he scored 32 points and hauled in nine rebounds, but Shi contributed 13 points, Castine chipped in with 10 points and Tracy generated eight points to go with 10 rebounds.
“On Saturday our energy was just great and everyone was just playing together, so hopefully we can get another one of those games on Sunday,” Griner said.
Sackets Harbor appeared to excel in the wide-open atmosphere of the SRC Arena court, after pulling out two close playoff victories at home.
“I told them really at this point and even last week, we were kind of playing with house money,” Robbins said. “Nobody really expected much from us going into the season and I don’t think really with any media outlet, I saw things on social media and we weren’t even included in the top seven or eight Class D teams. And then going into sectionals, I know we were the one seed, but I think a lot of people thought of West Canada Valley and Hamilton would be the two top teams.”
Griner is averaging 22.3 points per game this season, but the Patriots possess plenty of scoring balance along with Castine (16.0 ppg), Tracy (10.7), Peters (8.8) and Shi (7.0), who scored a career high 17 points in a home quarterfinal win against Oriskany.
“That’s where he’s improving, being a three-level scorer,” Robbins said of Griner. “He’s a good shooter and he’s working to become a really good, even great shooter. I mean obviously he can get to the basket and get to the free-throw line, but what’s going to separate him and what he’s really starting to improve is that mid-range game, whether it’s from scoring, but even getting in there and making plays and making his teammates better.”
While Griner paces the team in assists (137), he’s also totaled 167 rebounds, with Tracy (192) leading in this statistic, with Castine (189) not too far behind.
“I think everyone has really stepped up from their role last year, everyone has gotten better at all aspects of the game,” Griner said. “Shooting the ball, whether it’s dribbling, rebounding, playing defense or just like being a leader on the court and communicating.”
With its win last week, Sackets Harbor is now ranked No. 3 in the state in Class D, with Hamilton ranked ninth in the class.
“In practice we’ve been working a lot on defense and rebounding because Hamilton, they’re a big team, they’ve got a lot of big guys,” Griner said. “So I feel like if we play good solid defense and play hard and crash the boards then we’ll have a good chance of winning.”
Hamilton reached the final by defeating Madison, 52-42, last Saturday prior to Sackets Harbor’s game against West Canada Valley.
“They’re a really good team,” Robbins said. “Obviously coach (Tom) Blackford, I have a good relationship with him over the last few years and he’s a Hall of Fame coach, a legendary coach, so they’re going to be ready. They’ve got his vaunted 1-3-1 zone (defense) and they have the personnel to really make that zone effective, they’re just long and they’re tough, big and physical. And they really try to pound the ball inside, so I think they’ve got their advantages and we’ve got our style.
“I think they’re kind of contrasting styles, but I think the one thing both teams have is common is both teams are hard-nosed, they’re going to get after it. So it should be a fun, exciting game.”
This season, Hamilton has also shown plenty of balance led by the senior duo of Hudson Idzi, who averages 19.2 points a game and has totaled a team-high 243 rebounds, and Reese Snyder (14.1 ppg, 153 rebounds).
Sackets Harbor will be competing in its first Section 3 final in boys basketball since the 2014-15 season, when the team lost to New York Mills, 40-38 in overtime in the Class D title game.
“It feels amazing,” Robbins said of returning to a final. “You know this was commonplace for Sackets Harbor for so long and then you have a bunch of years where you don’t get close to here, and you really start to appreciate how hard it is.”
The Patriots last sectional title in the program came in 2012 when the team forged an undefeated season to claim a state championship in Class D.
“Coach talks about it sometimes, he told us this is our first chance in almost 10 years to win a sectional championship,” Griner added. “And it’s just cool to be back into it.”
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