BY ZACK KLEMME
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Bryan Groves’ nameplate is still screwed into the wall of his old locker in Russell’s refurbished locker room.
So when the first-year, firsttime head coach says he’s “trying to get the pride back in the school and play for each other again, instead of worrying about playing for yourself,” it’s not only coming from the Red Devils’ third head coach in as many years — it’s also the words of a 2003 Russell alumnus.
Groves will take his turn at turning around his alma mater. He’s been pleased to see the response of the Red Devils’ 16 upperclassmen to the latest in a line of new coaches.
“It comes down to the kids buying into what you’re trying to do, and we’ve had really good success from the upperclassmen buying in, so the rest of the program’s starting to buy in,” Groves said. “It’s been a challenge. We have some good and bad days, that’s for sure.”
That describes the Red Devils’ results last year (5-25) and over the last three, too.
They’ve gone 17-72 since an upset loss in the 2013 16th Region Tournament semifinals. Russell hopes to end that trend by returning the players responsible for about 92 percent of its points last winter.
T hatincludesthreeRed Devils who averaged in double figures in points last season: senior sharpshooter Ethan Raby (13.8 points per game), junior point guard Bobby Hale (13.2 ppg, 3.0 assists per game, 4.1 rebounds per game) and senior post player Landon Brewer (10.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg).
Groves credited Hale and Raby with being the Red Devils’ leaders — a role he wouldn’t have foreseen Raby, in particular, taking when he was an assistant coach at Russell in 2013-14.
“Ethan has actually kind of come out of his shell this year,” Groves said. “In the hallways, he’s a lot more energetic, he’s a lot more involved with the community, and he’s been a little more vocal this year.
“(Hale and Raby) are our leaders, and we have a lot of guys that follow them, so the days they go hard, everyone else is going hard.” Groves added that Hale, who hit a team-high 39 percent of his 3-pointers last season, “has really improved his shooting skills over the summer.”
Raby and Jared Fannin nipped at Hale’s heels by dropping in 38 percent of their treys apiece. Raby is healthy, Groves said, after spending some time bangedup last winter.
Fannin and Raceland transfer Austin Clark, both juniors, will join Raby and Hale in Russell’s guard rotation. Fannin (5.2 ppg last season) has put in work on his defense, Groves said, and Clark (5.5 ppg) is a combo guard who can play at point or shooting guard and “probably out of all our guys, day in and day out, his attitude has been top-notch,” Groves said.
Three of the Red Devils’ four primary post players — Brewer and juniors Ryan Stump (4.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Chaz Whitt — played on Russell’s football team that reached the region finals, giving them a late start to roundball.
Groves was perfectly willing to wait to merge them with senior Nathan Collins, praising his frontcourt’s athleticism. The coach said Collins, who has gotten extra reps compared to the football trio, has “improved tremendously from this summer to today,” particularly in finishing at the rim.
Senior guard Seth Atkins is also a returning regular, giving the Red Devils six players who averaged double- digit minutes last winter.
Groves said he plans to play primarily man-to-man defense and hopes to use that to spark transition offense.
“To be successful, our offense is gonna have to come from our defense,” he said. “We’re gonna try to get out in transition and spread some teams out.”