First-year United Township boys basketball coach Ryan Webber has had about two-and-a-half weeks to work with his players this month and he's been getting anxious.
After several practices and scrimmages, he'll have his first chance to see how his Panthers respond in live game action against other opponents as part of the 32-team varsity field in the 12th annual Justin Sharp Memorial Shootout held today and Saturday at Rock Island High School and Augustana's PepsiCo Recreation Center.
The main objective during Webber's initial time with his new team has been to establish a focus on the defensive end and an emphasis on all-out effort. He hopes that shows through during the next two days because he knows those facets of the game will be vital as the Panthers attempt to position themselves among the top teams in the Western Big Six this winter.
“I think one of the things we’re really trying to sell the kids on is they can always play harder, they can always go harder,” Webber said. “The pace of play and what’s going to be expected of them come November is going to be demanding. We’re going to demand that they play really hard and are going to be able to string together multiple possessions of really high-level basketball and not take a play off.”
For the first-year coaches in the Shootout field, the summer has been less about putting in plays and more about setting a tone for what will be expected within the program.
“We’re not putting in too much stuff, kind of keeping it pretty simple,” Davenport Assumption coach Matt Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just more getting guys in the gym and working hard, talking about toughness and being unselfish and really trying to create that culture.”
Fitzpatrick helped lead Assumption to a Class 3A state title as a player in 1999 and returned to his alma mater after spending time as a college assistant. He takes over a Knights squad that went 17-6 last year but graduated all five starters and returns only two players — Malik Smith-Larson and Cam Sturtevant — who have been part of the varsity rotation.
A trip to a team camp at Truman State, where Fitzpatrick was an assistant, and to a tournament at Iowa City West have been part of Assumption's busy June schedule as the young Knights try to fit into new roles.
The Sharp Shootout gives Fitzpatrick's players a chance to test what they've learned so far against a wide range of opponents from three states including defending Shootout and Iowa Class 4A champion North Scott as well as the rest of the Quad-Cities metro schools.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us but it’s going to be good for us, too,” Fitzpatrick said.
UT also graduated its top player from last year but returns a bit more experience than the Knights.
A trio of players who have impressed Webber so far are 6-foot-8 forward Bryant Jefferson and guards Jake Meeske and Trey Buchanan. He said they bring a businesslike, no-nonsense attitude to the gym that fits with his approach.
This is the fourth team Webber will take to the Sharp Shootout. The former Moline coach who most recently led Warren Township said the event holds a special meaning for him because he was an assistant on Thom Sigel's Rock Island squad during Justin Sharp's junior year before the star player lost his battle with leukemia in 2003 at the age of 18.
“It’s a tournament that I always felt close to and always wanted to bring my team to out of respect for Justin and the whole Sharp family,” Webber said. “I think the things I love about it are the people you get to see and talk to, how much pride there is in running a high-quality tournament, then you factor in that there are so many good teams. I think it’s the best one in the state. We’re very fortunate to be a part of it and know that it’s for a good purpose and a good cause.”