It’s going to be hard for Independence to top what it accomplished last season in winning 16 games and the team’s first sectional title in 20 years, but the Blue Devils are up for the challenge.
In fact, second-year head coach Kyle Johnson is counting on his team meeting that goal thanks to a combination of talent, depth and experience.
“I feel very comfortable with the depth of our team this year,” Johnson said. “We are going into year two with our system and the players are much more comfortable with our offensive and defensive philosophy. We have a group of very unselfish players that put their team first and are willing to do whatever it takes to get a ‘W’ in the win column instead of their individual stats.”
Success this season starts with the Blue Devils working hard day in and day out at practice and approaching each game with the same intensity.
Improving upon a 16-6 record won’t be easy, but Johnson believes his players have the right mindset to make it happen.
“I know this might sound cliché, but our goal is to just get better every single day in practice,” Johnson said. “Our motto this year is ‘Take the Stairs.’ We live in an escalator world where we want things easy, quick, and fast. When you take the stairs, you develop a mentality and attitude of getting better drill by drill, practice by practice, game by game. I truly believe in keeping our head down and working every day, one game at a time, and focusing on the opponent at hand. If we continue to do this, I believe everything takes care of itself.”
The Blue Devils return three starters and five others with varsity experience.
That group of returning starters includes junior point guard Kyle Zygmunt, who averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals on the way to earning first-team All-Chagrin Valley Conference and honorable mention all-state honors.
“Kyle has such a high basketball IQ for a junior,” Johnson said. “He contributes in all phases of the game at a high level. Kyle is a very selfless basketball player, almost to a fault at times, but he always makes the right play whether it’s passing or scoring. We will need him to score more for us this year to win basketball games. Also, for being a point guard, he is a tremendous rebounder.”
Seniors Eric Mitrisin and Matt Richards also return to the starting lineup.
Mitrisin, a guard, averaged eight points, two rebounds and two assists while Richards, a forward, scored six points with four rebounds per game. Mitrisin earned honorable mention All-CVC honors.
“Eric has really gotten stronger in the offseason and has definitely helped him so far this season. He is a competitor and an unselfish player. I have liked what I have seen so far from him on the defensive side of the ball. Eric is a knockdown shooter and very shifty with the basketball in his hands,” Johnson said. “Matt gives us a floor-stretching four-man. He has really improved on his 3-point shot this summer. Last year, Matt was able to shoot from the outside, but this year he has become more consistent from (behind the arc) and will be a threat from outside for us this year. Also, Matt really hit the weight room hard this summer and you can see the confidence in the way he is playing. We will need him to be a major rebounder for us this year.”
Senior center Adam Miklovic and freshman guard Ace Buckner are projected to fill out the starting lineup.
Miklovic, who was named the Northeast Lakes District Defensive Player of the Year in football, averaged five points and four rebounds per game last year off the bench.
“Adam was hurt for about half the season,” Johnson said. “When he came back, you could see the confidence in our team rise. Adam is the ultimate competitor and hardest worker on the floor every day. He is a very aggressive defender and rebounder. Adam has improved his jump shot immensely from a year ago. What I have liked most about Adam this year in practice so far is he is able to guard all five positions, which gives us the flexibility to do a lot of things defensively.”
Buckner is a smart player who can score from all over the court.
“Ace has fit right in with the philosophy of our basketball program,” Johnson said. “He is a very intelligent basketball player, unselfish, and can score at all three levels. Ace has great court vision and a high basketball IQ. What has impressed me so far has been his aggressiveness on the defensive side of the ball.”
Seniors Sean Kuczmarski, Connor Blum, Nick Ripepi and Aaron Ramm, juniors Casey McGhee, Jack Taliaferro, Aidan Coljohn, and Braden Flynn, and freshman Marky Tripodi will provide depth.
Kuczmarski is a center, Blum and Ripepi are guards and Ramm plays forward.
“Sean gives us some size and length on the basketball court. He also is able to step outside and knock down shots. What I have been most impressed by so far with Sean is on the defensive side of the floor. He understands our philosophy, is able to switch to smaller guards, and is a very good rebounder,” Johnson said. “Connor put in a ton of work in the offseason. He is much more confident in his ball-handling and his 3-point shot. Connor is a knockdown shooter and we are looking for him to fulfill the role for us as a defensive stopper. Nick was our JV leader last year at the point guard position. He gives us another good ball-handler and knockdown shooter. What I like most about Nick is he is the ultimate team player. He is willing to do whatever it takes for us to win games. Aaron is one of those players that never has a bad day. He is always competing, communicating, and encouraging his teammates. Aaron is one of those players that is willing to do whatever it takes to win and has a high motor.”
McGhee is a guard while Taliaferro and Coljohn both can play guard or forward. Flynn is a center.
“Casey is a knockdown shooter. He led our team in 3-point percentage last year and became more confident in his shot as the season went along. What I have been most impressed with by Casey is his improvement on the defensive side of the ball,” Johnson said. “Jack is our, no pun intended, Jack of all Trades. He is a very intelligent basketball player who put in a ton of work in the offseason and improved his jump shot drastically. He gives us the flexibility to play multiple spots on the floor depending on matchups. Jack is always in the right spot and moves the ball extremely well on the offensive side of the ball. Aidan was our best shooter this summer. He has grown a lot in the last year and will give us the luxury to play him at both guard and forward positions depending on matchups. What I have liked most about Aidan lately is the confidence he is starting to show. Braden has improved drastically over the past year. You can’t teach the length he has. His ability to alter opposing players’ shots is impressive. On the offensive end, Braden has put in the work and improved his range to the 3-point line. What I have liked most about Braden so far this year is his understanding of our offensive and defensive philosophy.”
Tripodi is a guard with a high ceiling.
“Marky is the ultimate teammate,” Johnson said. “He is willing to do whatever it takes to help us win. Marky has very nice touch from the outside and uses his length very well on the defensive side of the ball.”
Again, Independence has a desirable blend of talent, depth and experience and Johnson has been impressed with what his players have done in the preseason.
“Offensively, when you have a first-team all-conference point guard returning as a junior in Kyle Zygmunt, things are going to run much more smoothly. I have loved the way we have moved the ball on offense, not just ball movement, but player movement and spacing. Players have really put in time in the offseason to become better shooters and I feel confident that we have seven or eight guys that can consistently knock down shots,” Johnson said. “Defensively, we have taken a step forward in understanding the scheme of our defense. Players are in the right spot and communicating more on the defensive end. This is allowing us to play faster and be more aggressive. With the depth we have, we are looking to press more and try to cause more turnovers in the full court.”
Like every other team in the area, Independence will face challenges this season, including avoiding the spread of the Coronavirus.
Remaining focused on the task at hand will be a key to Independence’s success this season.
“I think the challenge for us is staying focused during a pandemic,” Johnson said. “We can’t worry about what is going to happen in the future, we can only control right now and have to maximize that opportunity. Also, we are going to have to create our own energy during games with a limited crowd.”