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When it comes to Woonsocket Highâ€™s boys basketball team, the old axiom of everyone loves a winner comes to mind. The flip side, as revealed this winter, is that very few people are willing to make the trip through snow and ice on a school night to watch this yearâ€™s 1-8 team play its home games.
Wednesday nightâ€™s game against East Providence was a perfect example of the contrast between this year and recent seasons in which the Villa Novans went to the playoffs and even came within one made basket of beating Bishop Hendricken for the state title back in 2008. The bleachers at Savaria Gym were packed with students and adults in those days, people full of enthusiasm for the program.
On Wednesday night, perhaps 50 fans came to root for the home team against East Providence, which brought nearly as many spectators to watch its own losing team, one that improved to 4-5 in Division I with its 53-40 victory.
You could literally hear a pin drop when the halftime buzzer sounded with Woonsocket trailing, 27-15. Fans just sat quietly and talked with one another while players from both teams walked to their locker rooms. The gymnasium lacked noise, cheerleaders and energy.
Woonsocketâ€™s second-half comeback, which saw the Villa Novans cut their deficit to 41-38 with four minutes remaining, stirred some life in the home fans, who clapped hands and tried to rally their team. It did no good as East Providence hit a few key baskets and pulled away for the win.
The fans slowly left the gym. Some teenagers hung around to shoot hoops on the floor while the players dressed in their locker rooms. Woonsocket coach Kyle Ivey-Jones had a short meeting with his team and then returned to the floor, looking for the official scorebook while answering a few questions about this latest defeat.
Kyle is a big man, 6-foot-7, who has always commanded a looming presence over his players, even in the good days. He took over the program five years ago and within two years had Woonsocket playing for the Division I state championship. Two more playoff seasons followed. And now the coach is dealing with a losing season, trying to strike the right note between strength, discipline and compassion for players who need some emotional boosting.
Back in September, Ivey-Jones spoke with some confidence about the upcoming season, pointing out the size of his frontcourt as a good reason for optimism. Senior Flavio Barros stands around 6-foot-5 and showed signs of developing a good low-post game last season before injuries curtailed his junior year. Andreas Brackett is also tall and athletic, a hard-working player trying to make the right plays for his coach. Junior Kodie Spearman is nearly the same height as Barros and a strong rebounder.
Senior guard Edwin Jones emerged as the teamâ€™s main offensive scoring threat when the season began. Junior Kory Lawrence and sophomore Cody Lâ€™Heureux both possess decent shooting touches when left open.
On the down side, several players left the team for varying reasons. Woonsocketâ€™s depth of talent is very thin. Good teams need eight or nine contributing players during the course of a season. The Novans struggle to find three or four. Sometimes they only have one offensive player who can create a shot -- the never-shy Edwin Jones.
Defense is not a strong point to this team, even though this is an area where offensively-challenged squads can become effective just by working hard for 32 minutes.
Point guard Jesse Charette walked away from basketball to focus on indoor track and field, where he has college scholarship potential as a runner and jumper. Losing a point guard is never easy and Woonsocket has struggled to find a replacement. Ivey-Jones is working in a young sophomore named Khalil Oliver who shows some promise.
Ivey-Jones has always been a blunt man who delivers his teaching message in strong terms. That manner of teaching was never a problem when the Villa Novans were winning. Now that they are losing, the coach is trying to adjust, speaking softer and even biting his tongue at times during the game.
Ivey-Jones spoke on Wednesday night about how his team still has time to win a few games before the season ends. The coach hasnâ€™t given up on his players. But it is apparent that this team lacks confidence in itself. Barros and Lâ€™Heureux seemed reluctant to shoot the ball against East Providence. Both seem to be sensitive young men.
Lawrence, Brackett, Spearman and Jones fight hard on the court and hate losing. Oliver is just a young sophomore with good instincts who is often physically overmatched when he drives the lane. Heâ€™ll get better as he matures, physically and mentally
Woonsocket has nine league games remaining this season. The process of teaching and coaching this team rests in the hands of Ivey-Jones and assistant Dennis Harmon, who remain committed to their players. It is difficult to teach players in this kind of environment, with losses piling up while playing to a virtually empty home gym. It is hard for the players, too. Fans and fellow students must find it difficult because very few of them even want to watch.
The Villa Novans host Hope High on Friday night. They are a team in need of support from the local basketball community that so eagerly embraced more successful Woonsocket squads in recent years. If this is a team that lacks confidence right now, perhaps the people who used to fill the gym can find the time to return for one night and cheer on a group of young men who could use some positive reinforcement.
Itâ€™s easy to follow a winning team. You find out who your real friends are when hard times hit.