The Soroco High School boys basketball team seemed to change irrevocably when the team wasn’t even on the court. It wasn’t during a game or even a practice.
Senior Cody Miles, the team’s leading returning scorer entering the season and one of the senior leaders who was fresh off leading the school to its most successful football season in three decades, broke his hand.
He was playing hoops at the school during an open gym session and reached his left hand in for a steal. With an inadvertent twist and a crack, his season was over.
The foundation for the continued success of the team may already have been laid, however, and when the Rams began the painful process of finding someone to replace Miles, they didn’t look far.
Forwards Matt Watwood and Leif Carlson helped change the entire focus of the team.
Last year and early this winter, the Rams were a team that hoped to push the pace, relying on the strength of guards.
The reasoning wasn’t just that the team had good guards, though. Part of the problem was that it lacked any big presence inside the paint. Running was all the Rams had.
Thanks to Watwood and Carlson, that may be changing, and just in time.
Getting back on the court
Neither of the team’s forwards took the easy path to contributing.
Watwood’s was the most frustrating.
The senior had the making of being one of the school’s top athletes since he first walked through the door. A series of injuries has kept that from being a reality.
He suffered stress fractures in both his feet during his sophomore basketball season. The injuries left him in a wheelchair and with matching casts for six weeks. He had walking boots for the eight weeks after that, losing those just barely in time to participate in the final couple of track meets of the spring season.
Then as a junior, he twisted his ankle badly before the basketball season and was limited in his availability throughout the winter.
Finally, playing football last fall, he hurt his ankle and had surgery.
“I don’t know how the kid can keep a smile on his face,” coach Sam McLeod said.
Watwood’s not exactly healed yet, and he’s still regaining strength in his legs. But his contributions on the basketball court have grown by leaps and bounds.
“Matt’s so strong,” McLeod said. “He’s got strong hands, and he’s a powerful offensive rebounder. Hopefully, his endurance starts to build back up because when he gets set up under the basket, he’s strong. You can’t move him an inch.”
Picking up the sport
Carlson, too, has been slowed this year by a lack of time on the court.
He’s absence was a personal decision, however.
Standing at 6-foot-5, Carlson long ago got used to people asking whether he played basketball, then the inevitable follow-up question: why not?
The junior didn’t step on the court for an organized game until this season.
He grew up in Michigan and moved to South Routt County with his family before last school year.
“I met him when he first enrolled in school,” McLeod said. “I walked up, shook his hand and said, ‘Man, I hope you play basketball.’”
McLeod said that a subtle sales job didn’t work in Carlson’s first year at Soroco but that a welcoming attitude by the members of the team helped make the difference this season.
Still, even once Carlson came out for the team, his only experience was on the playground.
“It was just never a huge interest of mine before,” Carlson said. “I love to hunt, so I was outdoors a lot. I was always happy to grab a ball and play pick-up, but this year I felt a little different. I realized the teams out here are a lot smaller, and I just wanted to start playing and try to get better.”
It took hours and hours and hours of work. Much of it came in the gym, McLeod tutoring his new post on everything from the right way to execute a drop step to the basic rules of the game.
Much more of it came at home, where Carlson and his father spent days practicing free throws and other shots.
At first, Carlson’s specialty was blocking shots.
Slowly, his offensive skills have come around, however. He exploded for 18 points in one game early this season and then poured in 15 last week against North Park.
Changing the game
The evidence of the team’s transition from a guard-powered offense to a post-up team was easily found in the 49-33 win last week against North Park. Watwood and Carlson accounted for 60 percent of the team’s total points.
And it was even present in Saturday night’s 68-40 loss to Meeker, one of the state’s top teams. Watwood led the team in scoring with 12, and Carlson added six.
All parties admitted that there’s still a long way to go. Watwood wants to continue to regain strength, and Carlson knows there’s plenty of work that still can be done to refine his talents.
“Once Leif came out, we knew we’d have a strong post game,” Watwood said. “Now it’s me and Leif, and our strategy has changed.”