Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

WJ boys learning as they go

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At the start of the boys basketball season, Walter Johnson coach Bill Morris figured that his team would take the first third of the year to learn about themselves and each other. In the process, the Wildcats might also suffer some tough losses, like last Friday’s 56-44 loss to Churchill. Yet, he’s been pleasantly surprised. Even with Friday’s loss, the Wildcats have opened the season with five wins in their first nine games.

‘‘To have this record at this point in the season is fantastic,” Morris said. ‘‘We know that we have a tough schedule coming up, but the boys have been meeting expectations. They never give up in the games, and that always gives us an opportunity to win.”

There has been no one player that Morris can point to that has carried the team. Rather, it has been a combined effort of all five starters, and a bench that is getting deeper and growing into their roles. Senior swingman Carl Yaffe has led the charge offensively, hitting double figures in his first eight games this season. That streak was stopped against Churchill on Friday, when he managed to hit just two field goals and score seven points, but overall, Yaffe has been proficient. Yaffe’s new offensive game has come in large part to an off-season, seven-inch growth spurt that now finds him at 6-foot-6.

‘‘I think Carl is enjoying playing at his new size,” Morris said. ‘‘He still has a jumper, but now he can go inside. He is finding that he can play a new type of game.”

Walter Johnson (5-4 overall, 1-1 Montgomery County’s 4A West Division) has also benefited from the two-guard tandem of junior Nash Oh and senior Matt Grady, who play with differing styles that are equally effective. As just under six feet, Oh is quick, using speed to get to the basket and knock down midrange jumpers. Against the Bulldogs, he led Walter Johnson with 13 points. Grady, on the other hand, also grew in the off-season, topping out at 6-3, and with that size, brings court vision and the ability to the ball around smaller defenders.

‘‘A lot of kids benefit when he has the ball because he has been able to get it to them,” Morris said. ‘‘All of the guys rotate in to step up when we need them.”

Another surprise has been the play in the post of 6-4 junior Omar Zerbo and junior Henry Tollefson. Combined, the pair has been averaging double figures in points and rebounds in the early going this season. The trick for the Wildcats now, though, is to keep up their surprisingly strong debut. No longer an unknown quantity, county teams will look to exploit some weaknesses, including Walter Johnson’s lack of consistency.

‘‘What I tell the team is that the game is often a test of wills,” Morris said. ‘‘Sometimes the team that gets mentally fatigued is the one that loses, and there has been times this season that we have been that team. We have to see if we can get more consistent, and we are definitely not yet finished product. We still have a long way to go, but we’re a lot farther along than I thought we’d be at this point in the season.”