Chris Bohlen laughs because, really, there isn’t much else he can do.
The Thomas S. Wootton boys basketball coach does so because he lost 10 players to graduation, including all five starters and nearly 100 percent of the team’s scoring, rebounds, assists and minutes played from last year’s 15-10 team.
He does have Jamie Rotbert, a 5-foot-10 guard who came off the bench last year, and senior Andrew Craig, a 6-foot-4 center who played varsity as a sophomore, but missed the majority of his junior season with a chronic stress fracture in his shin.
But still, Bohlen didn’t even know a handful of the kids that would eventually make the team, one of the greenest in the county. Wootton now features four sophomores and five juniors, none of which played a varsity minute last season.
“It has been a very interesting experience for us,” said Bohlen, who is in his seventh year as coach. “We’re literally putting a whole new team together.”
How does he deal with it?
“A lot of prayer,” he said. And he laughs. He does that a lot when talking about the sweeping personnel change he has had to undergo — the most student-athletes he had ever previously lost in a single season was six.
It may seem frustrating, building a team from the ground up in a matter of three weeks. But Rotbert, a compulsive optimist, has a different word for it, as does Craig and even Bohlen.
“It’s actually pretty fun,” Rotbert said. “To see the changes we’ve gone through from summer league until now. ... It’s going surprisingly well.”
In fact, Rotbert went as far to use the word lucky in describing Wootton’s position.
“I think we actually are kind of lucky,” he said. “It was a great year to lose 10 guys because we have so much talent.”
Bohlen echoed that sentiment.
“I don’t think we lack in the talent department, but we lack in experience,” he said. “I’d love to have a few kids that have a little game experience.”
Following a banquet at the end of the season in which Bohlen had to say farewell to his massive senior contingent, he did something he had never done before in his seven years of coaching Wootton: he named a captain.
Rotbert had been pretty quiet in years past. He let the seniors do the majority of the talking. He just did whatever was asked. But when Bohlen thrust him into a leadership position no Wootton boys basketball player has ever had, he took it and ran with it.
He led off-season workouts, weight room sessions, summer league games and whatever else the team needed him to.
“He went from going from basically our eighth or ninth man to the guy we rely on for everything,” Bohlen said. “He was the kind of kid we knew we needed in a leadership role.”
Throughout summer league, Wootton was, somewhat expectedly, not good. Craig, a baseball player at heart, missed the majority of the games due to baseball commitments. It was just Rotbert and a palette of fresh faces.
“It was just knowing each other,” Rotbert said. “We just needed some practice as a team under our belt.”
According to Bohlen, the Patriots have made enormous strides since tryouts began Nov. 15. But it still doesn’t offset the fact that he is playing catch-up while other teams such as Paint Branch, Damascus and Col. Zadok Magruder retained huge chunks of their rosters to build off of.
“I’ve literally had to go back to year one practice plans,” he said. “The joke was about John Wooden teaching his kids tying their shoes.”
As the story goes, during one of his first days at UCLA, Wooden brought out a box of shoes and socks and taught his players how to tie their sneakers so they wouldn’t come undone during games. This would be the initial lesson for everything his players would need to know.
Bohlen has been pleasantly surprised by his young team’s improvement in the early goings, but there’s still growing pains.
“I got to keep reminding myself that we’re farther along right now than I expected us to be,” he said. “But they have been very quick to pick things up which has been fun.”
As could have been expected, the season opener was a little difficult. A 70-47 loss to Paint Branch greeted them out of the gates and games against good Poolesville and James H. Blake teams loom during the next few weeks.
Bohlen hopes for his Patriots to be up to speed by the time the holiday break is done. But, he said, “at the end of the day, the only way you can see where you are is with an opponent.”