Butler Mid-Summer Preview
By Mark Kitchin
Basketball has never been the prominent sport at Butler High School. So whenever any basketball team reaches double digits victories for the season, it’s a special time for the Bulldogs.
Butler’s senior clad team had a memorable season. At a small school, it usually means the following year is time to start over. The fond memories will have to last awhile.
“It was the best season in 10 years in Butler,” Butler coach Brandon Mefford said. “We finished 11-12. We started off slow and played well towards the end of the season. We played well in states. We came up a little bit short but I had eight seniors, eight good leaders that went through the program. It was one of the better years we’ve had. Were looking to build on that.”
The hope is that some of last year’s success will rub off on a new group of Bulldogs who have seen first hand what it takes to win.
The Bulldogs were 4-8 in early February before rattling off a four game win streak among the likes of Mountain Lakes, Boonton, Lenape Valley and Dover. Caldwell brought them back to earth, but Butler straddled the .500 mark the rest of the regular season. They were eliminated in the preliminary round of the Morris County Tournament with a loss to Montville. They also suffered a first round loss in state tournament play to Hasbrouck Heights.
Much of Butler’s offense was generated by senior guard Nick Ballestreri. He finished third in Morris County scoring with a 20.1 points per game average. Not a big guard, Ballestreri was fun to watch if you were a Butler fan. He was fearless on drives to the basket. He also shot well from the perimeter and on the foul line. He hopes to walk on at Montclair State this year.
“He was our heart and soul,” Mefford said. “He was a scorer. He defended pretty well. He ran the team.”
Mefford felt that every senior on the Bulldogs contributed something to the team and made a difference in the Butler success.
“There were guys like Glenn Reger who was all hustle,” Mefford said. “Ryan McInerney who was a tough son of a gun. He would get every rebound. Kevin Fitzpatrick was a team first kid. He made sure everything was ready for practice. Those were intangible things that I really can’t teach but they just went with it.”
Unfortunately, they are no longer a member of the Bulldogs, except in the hearts of teammates and fans who will always treasure their exploits.
Kit Bargamento is the only starter from last year coming back to play on the varsity level. He will no doubt take up one of the guard spots. The tallest Butler player is only about 6-feet tall, so many of the players might be interchangeable.
“He is the most experienced,” Mefford said of Bargamento. “He is a heck of a ballplayer, a heck of a shooter. He’s the only senior coming back with experience.”
Danny Polons and Nick Lasala will also be counted on to provide offense. They have scored less than 10 varsity points between them and received most of their experience on the jayvee level.
“Danny came up toward the end of the year,” Mefford said. “He’s a sophomore. I think he’s going to be a very smart player. He’s going to be my starting point guard. I expect some good things out of Nick Lasala. He’s a junior. He’s a good shooter. He still needs to develop some other things.”
Mefford does not expect miracles, just solid progress among his young players. All good things take time, especially on the basketball court.
“The jayvee season was up and down,” Mefford said. “It’s a learning curve so a lot of times the varsity is just beating them. I hope they take that toughness for boxing out and stuff in games. You can’t really teach toughness you just try to instill it in them.”
Because of a lack of size, rebounding may be hard to come by. The Butler players, especially a pair of key juniors, will need to be fundamentally sound on the inside.
“Sean Ellicot and A. J. Pelez are about 6-foot,” Mefford said. “Rebounding is going to be a big issue for us. They played a little bit of varsity here and there. We are expecting some big things out of them.”
Depth may also be a factor for the Bulldogs but Mefford doesn’t think it will keep the upcoming team from pressing on occasion.
“We like to mix it up,” Mefford said. “We will throw a man to man in there because then we can switch on everything. We switch to zone sometimes if we can throw some bigger guys down there. We going to do a lot of box out drills. We can press. We have to work on some of the fundamentals of it, the drops and who is covering.”
Butler felt it got a lot out of the Morris Knolls Summer League. Small school rivals Whippany Park and Boonton were there too which gave the Bulldogs an opportunity to see how they stack up and what to work on.
The Bulldogs also took in a weekend camp at Susquehanna in mid-July. They received a steady diet of competition from Pennsylvania and New York teams it had not seen before.
“They played 15 games and they were exhausted at the end,” Mefford said. Like all teams, Butler had its share of open gyms to give the athletes more time together.
Overall, a good news, bad news scenario exists. The bad news is the Bulldogs don’t have any football players to worry about which might indicate a lack of athleticism from past teams. The good news is that because there are no football playing Bulldogs, Butler is considering putting together a fall league team at the Wayne P. A. L. or perhaps Hoop Heaven.
“We might look to do something,” Mefford said. “Have a parent run it and get in some fall league. This is the first year that I will be able to get more than five guys. They have basketball in their minds and they don’t have a fall sport.”
Butler could be facing a challenging winter, but that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs aren’t eager to get started. Mefford has a positive attitude and believes the Bulldogs are capable of meeting the challenge.
“We have a bunch of new kids,” Mefford said. “It will be interesting to see how we develop.”