Asked during a conversation in between county classification contests last Thursday how his team, the Pierson High School Whalers, got to be so good, Dan White, who’s in his second season coaching boys basketball in Sag Harbor, said, “The big thing is that the kids are playing year round.”
Last year’s senior-heavy team, whose players didn’t play the year round, went 5-9 in league competition, but this winter White reaped a bonanza as Jon Tortorella’s 12-2 junior varsity moved up.
Before this campaign began, White, who played in New York State’s Final Four Class C tournament in 2005 with Hoosic Valley High School’s team, and who later was a guard at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., made a gentleman’s bet with his former-New York Knick assistant, Eric Anderson, as to how the 2011-12 Whalers would do.
“Anderson said he thought we’d go 10-4, and I said 11-3. He won.”
While there are no D-1 prospects on the team, Pierson’s players are energetic, tough, well drilled, and they’ve benefited, their coach said, from “playing against guys who are more athletic than they are in the off-season.”
Pierson finished one game behind Stony Brook in League VIII and then went on to topple the Bears 34-32 in the final second of the county Class C championship game thanks to the sophomore Forrest Loesch’s 3-pointer from 22 feet out on the left wing.
That victory — the first county boys basketball championship the school had won in 18 years — followed an equally exciting semifinal with Port Jefferson played in Pierson’s gym on Feb. 17. Loesch came up big in that one too, scoring all 4 of the Whalers’ points in O.T. on the way to a 36-35 final.
“These guys play together on travel teams in the spring, summer, and fall — I set it up,” said White, whom Anderson has described as “a perfect coach — he’s a basketball junkie, and he’s got that number-one thing every A.D. looks for — that motor, that energy.”
Joe Zucker, Carl Johnson’s assistant at Bridgehampton, had nice things to say about White as well before the county’s C-D game was played by Bridgehampton and Pierson at Farmingdale State College on Feb. 22. “He’s done a great job with his team,” Zucker said. “They run a tough man-for-man defense, they’re good with the ball, they run the clock, and they can all shoot.”
It was true, White said last Thursday, “they were always good shooters. But there’s more to the game than that. We’ve been working with them on such things as ball pressure, running the floor, finishing. . . . Now they’re starting to become physically and mentally tough. There are no stars; they play as a pretty solid unit, with mutual respect.”
“Ninety percent of the time,” he said, in reply to a question, “we play man-for-man defense. We played man against Port Jeff and man against Bridgehampton, but if a team has a couple of good shooters who can give us trouble, like Stony Brook had, we’ll play a match-up zone.”
He was looking forward, he said, to the following day’s county B-C-D game with Class B champion Center Moriches “because they play a style we’re not used to. They constantly press — pressure, pressure, pressure. It will be an excellent warm-up for the state tournament.”
Pierson is to play East Rockaway in a state regional semifinal at Farmingdale on Tuesday at 5 p.m. The winner of that game is to play the Section I/IX winner at the State University at New Paltz on March 10. Bridgehampton is also to play at New Paltz that day, versus the Section I/IX Class D winner.
White said he saw East Rockaway, a team that bested the Killer Bees 73-60 in the Beehive in December, defeat Friends Academy on television recently. “Their inside men are a little bigger, but I think our guards are a little better.”
Speaking of guards, Pierson’s coach said his sophomore point guard, Ian Barrett, “makes us go . . . Jackson Marienfeld [a junior] is good too.”
Eric Anderson, he said, “has brought Sam Miller, our inside man, a long way — he’s been close to averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds a game for us in the second half of the season. . . . And Joey Butts, while at 5-7 he’s not physically imposing, is a shooter. He’s great coming off screens, he has a quick release, and can beat guys off the dribble. We look for him to shoot 10 to 15 times a game.”
“Our defense,” White added, “has been giving up 43 points on average, which is pretty good, and we try to take 55 shots a game. If we score 50 to 60 points and play good defense we ought to be able to win most of the time.”
League VIII was topsy-turvy this winter. The Whalers, for instance, handily defeated Bridgehampton twice in league play, but lost both times to Greenport, which, in turn, was routed 73-50 by the Bees in the recent county Class D championship game. Pierson split with Ross, losing 65-30 to the Cosmos on Feb. 7, and the Whalers split, as well, with league-champion Stony Brook, losing 60-35 to the Bears at home on Jan. 17 but rebounding to defeat the Brooksters 49-45 on Feb. 13.
“The second time we played Stony Brook, when we beat them at their place, I began to think we might have a good playoff run,” said White, “that if we played our game we could go pretty far.”
While he’s taking it one game at a time, Pierson’s young coach is aware that Pierson hasn’t won a state boys basketball championship since 1978. However the Whalers do in the state tourney this year, White is secure in the knowledge that “we’re turning things around.”
It was “complete dumb luck” that he had ever come down here, he said, in answer to another question. “I had graduated from college and I was about to become an assistant coach on the college team when Jeff Nichols [Pierson’s principal] called. He’d seen my résumé online. It was July of ’09. I hopped on a ferry and gave a lesson in European handball to a group at the middle school. But I think he liked it that I had a basketball background. I was offered a job that day, and here I am.”
“It’s easy,” he continued, “when you work with kids who want to learn. I work with the middle school kids too. Joey Butts never stops working, so why should I?”