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Boys Basketball Notebook: Interim coach Houck hunting for Tiger turnaround at Marple

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> Three weeks into the season, Marple Newtown’s basketball team was still searching for answers to a bevy of questions spawned by an offseason rebuild.

Then it was hit with another conundrum: How would that laborious process proceed without the coach who led them to the District One Tournament last season?

Marple Newtown forward Marcus Weathers, left, tries to defend Penncrest’s A.J. Taylor during a Dec. 11 game. Weathers is one of the senior leaders helping the Tigers transition from the change of leadership of the program, with Eric Houck coaching the team on an interim basis after coach Brian Shane took a leave of absence for health reasons. (Special to the Times/Rob Dudley)

Marple Newtown forward Marcus Weathers, left, tries to defend Penncrest’s A.J. Taylor during a Dec. 11 game. Weathers is one of the senior leaders helping the Tigers transition from the change of leadership of the program, with Eric Houck coaching the team on an interim basis after coach Brian Shane took a leave of absence for health reasons. (Special to the Times/Rob Dudley)

Illness kept coach Brian Shane away from the Dec. 18 game against Radnor. By Christmas Eve, the Tigers were informed that Shane would take an indefinite leave of absence due to health-related issues.

Eric Houck, the JV coach and an assistant athletic director, would be installed as the head man on an interim basis. And the situation hasn’t been ideal, Houck and his players are coping as best as possible.

“It’s kind of tough, but we’re dealing with it as well as we can,” senior forward Marcus Weathers said after Tuesday’s 57-54 loss to Phoenixville in the consolation game of the Marple Holiday Tournament. “Coach Shane was a good coach, but we have Coach Houck now. … We just love his personality; he’s really up and really exciting. He’s always getting us together in practice. He’s very energetic.”

Houck credits his familiarity with the group as a major asset in assuming this midseason challenge. As a teacher, he’s had many of them in class as well as on the court, forging a strong relationship. On balance, it’s a young group with little previous varsity experience, leaving them receptive to a change in instruction. The most difficult aspect from his perspective is the simple logistics of running a varsity and JV with just two bodies instead of the usual three.

After a 1-9 start, including eight consecutive losses, Houck remains upbeat about the possibility of a turnaround.

That optimism is rooted in the maturity with which his players have handled the switch. Worrying about Shane’s health and status was a distraction to many, including the handful of players that Weathers said Shane personally coaxed to come out for the team. Houck’s promotion allays some of the players’ concerns and offers the stability of a familiar face.

“Not a lot changes,” Weathers said. “It’s good that it was a guy who was our JV coach. If it was another guy, it would be a little weird. But he’s our JV coach, so he knows all the plays we run.”

The persistence of change has actually smoothed the adjustment. Even under Shane, a group featuring three holdovers who logged significant minutes last year had yet to assume clearly defined roles. Transitioning to Houck’s guidance is another change among many.

“I told the kids today, ‘we’re still figuring out where guys are going to be,’” he said. “… I’ve been shoving out different lineups, who can play well with (whomever), who can play the minutes.”

Jarring as change can be, the Tigers are clamoring for something to shake their slump. It’s happened individually — more scoring from Weathers, leading the team at 11.5 points per game, growing confidence for youngsters like Mark Dever (17 points vs. Chichester Dec. 19) and Mike May (eight vs. Phoenixville).

“I think our leaders have been leaders consistently throughout,” Houck said. “…They set the stage, whether they’re playing 30 minutes or not. I think what I’ve seen is some of our younger players starting to pick up their effort a little bit to try, knowing that we need something from somewhere.”

Whether under Shane or Houck, Marple Newtown was a good candidate for infusions of in-game energy, such as by dialing up pressure defenses or offering opponents more zone looks.

Houck has done that tinkering, in the name of acclimation. It kept the Tigers close to Phoenixville until the final possession and in touch with high-scoring Chichester. What’s lacking is the late-game execution to translate that into wins. For Houck, it’s a question of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’

“If we keep doing the effort that we had today,” he said, “I think we’re going to get some wins.”

• • •

Twice in a week, Haverford did something it rarely does: It cracked 60 points.

In losses to Chichester (68-62) and Academy Park (69-62), the Fords surpassed that threshold. It’s the Fords’ highest output since the 2013-14 opener, when they torched Tacony Academy for 71 points.

Through 10 games, the Fords are averaging 50.1 points per game, up from 37.1 last year.

So is this the sign of a more run-and-gun squad? Not exactly.

Keith Heinerichs’ team is still young with limited varsity experience and a couple of injuries. They also have a superb passing point guard in Jack Donaghy who boosts the execution of its methodical half-court offense considerably.

Part of the scoring uptick is rooted in young players grasping the offensive principles more rapidly than the defensive. The heart of the 2013-14 run to the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament, for instance, was a veteran squad that played hard-nosed defense in limiting opponents to 45.4 ppg.

This year’s team is coming along defensively, holding both Chi and AP slightly below their season averages. But Heinerichs wants more balance. Getting quick baskets when they present themselves is beneficial, but late mistakes dooming them to five single-digits losses (two in overtime) illustrate that the quest for more points isn’t always better.

“It’s a fine line,” Heinerichs said. “Yeah in games, if we see that we’re up to 40 points early, that’s good, but we need to have good possessions. We have to find the balance with when to shoot or not.”

• • •

Speaking of Chichester, there’s a clear demarcation in the Eagles’ season. Derrick Welles made his first appearance in a Dec. 12 loss to Ridley. Since, Chi has rattled off six straight wins, the second hottest team in Delco behind the Green Raiders.

Welles has been a difference maker. The senior guard is averaging 17.7 points per game, but he provides so much more to a team with four double-figures scorers.

His value was exemplified by Wednesday’s 88-56 win over Kennett, in which he tallied a triple-double, and Tuesday’s defeat of Unionville that featured five players in double-figures, aided by Welles facilitation.

“He’s just an overall player,” coach Buzz Wood said. “He’s doing all the right things, all the small things. He’s doing a great job of not running the team but being part of the team. He gets everyone involved.”

He and junior point guard Eric Montanez form a potent backcourt duo, both of whom are threats to pass or score. With Jamai Womack’s dogged work in the post and DaQuan Granberry’s 3-point shooting, the Eagles could make a run at a district berth.

To contact Matthew De George, email mdegeorge@delcotimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.

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