After coming down from the success of the 2016-17 high school basketball season – a 22-win campaign that resulted in the Champlain Valley Union High School boys basketball program’s first state championship appearance – reality soon set in.
The Redhawks said goodbye to all but four of the members of the state finalist team and only one, Graham Walker, had seen significant action.
Anyone looking at the numbers would say that CVU was going to be in rebuild.
“I wasn’t very embracing of the term ‘rebuild’,” said CVU coach Mike Osborne. “I thought we had a lot of talent on JV. It was just a matter of getting them some experience.”
The Redhawks proved their coach right, winning the first five of their seven games and looking like a team that would challenge the top of the Metro Division.
Even the losses showed that CVU was ready to compete, with a three-point loss to Rice and a tight rematch with D-I state champs Rutland proving that the talent had returned – albeit with different names on the jerseys.
“We’ve got a lot of new kids and a lot of young talent,” said senior captain Will Burroughs. “They have been in the program as long as I have so they are on the same page as we are.”
The strength of the group on the defensive side of the ball emerged almost immediately, holding opponents to under 50 points in five of their first seven games.
“The preparation is key,” said senior captain Spencer Dooley of the team’s defensive success. “We’re scouting the team we are playing next, watching film, keying in on their best players and figuring out how to stop them.”
In addition, the Redhawks’ rebounding prowess has surpassed even their coaches’ expectations and has helped the team on both ends of the court.
“I thought we would be a better rebounding team, but we have been very good,” Osborne said. “Offense has been the challenge.”
The offensive struggles have led to a bit of a reality check in the last three games, as CVU has dropped all three to top teams. The losses to Burlington, Mount Mansfield and St. Johnsbury have dropped the Redhawks to 5-5 and sent them back to the drawing board.
“Those losses helped us identify what we need to work on so we can keep getting better,” Dooley said. “It was kind of a wake-up call, we are not the same team as last year, every single game is a battle.”
The inexperience seems to be coming through the most on offense, with only Walker coming into the season with time against the top players in the state. But even the junior has faced changes, moving to point guard to replace the departed talent.
“These guys have played so much ball together,” Osborne said. “It’s just the speed of varsity basketball in the Metro, the quality coaching, the scouting, the game-planning, teams being coached to limit your strengths and make you play to your weaknesses.
“We’ve got to get better at cleaning up our weaknesses.”
Despite the recent challenges, the CVU players have no doubt that they will be competetive with the top teams.
“The Metro is as wide open as ever this year,” Burroughs said. “I think there are six teams that have a viable chance to win, us being one of them.”
One thing the Redhawks have going for them? They know what it takes to get to Patrick Gym, and this year’s group is determined to follow up the success of last year’s team. Four teams from Division 1 make it to the semifinals; those games and the finals are played at the University of Vermont gym.
“Our goal is always to win a state championship and at least make it to Patrick,” Dooley said. “I think by the end of the season, we will be there. We have as much of a chance as anybody else.”
With ten games remaining in the regular season, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the CVU team: Can they fix their offensive woes? Will the defense stay strong? One thing no one has to worry about is a rebuild. This team is fully focused on winning this year.