The Rockport-Fulton High School (RFHS) Pirate basketball team began this season with a different team make up than in previous seasons under fourth year head coach Damien Bates.
In the last two seasons, RFHS ran the floor with exceptional guard play from former players Konnor McMahon and Tyson Cox. Last season, Cox was named the Offensive MVP of the district, while McMahon was named the Defensive MVP.
While Cox and McMahon ran the show, they were usually flanked by teammates whom were senior veterans, or young players with proven varsity playing experience. In 2018-19, those role players were seniors Andrew Gardner, Lance Sellers, William Brantley, and Quinn Marr. In 2019-20, those players were Cole Armstrong, Kaden Harder, Jeremy Hawkins, and Chance Bates.
This season, RFHS is relying on the youth and size of their new-look team.
The only players returning from last year’s squad are captains C. Bates and Josh Lee. Kaden Harder is also a returning starter, but an injury sustained during football season may keep him sidelined for most, if not all of the season.
Sophomore guard C. Bates takes on an even bigger role this season as the teams’ primary ball handler. C. Bates said watching K. McMahon the last three seasons has been helpful as he grows into his new role.
“I watched him ever since he was a sophomore and just try to lead by example,” said C. Bates. “I have moments where I get in my own head, but I’ve learned if I focus on other teammates and build them up, it helps get me off myself.”
Senior forward Josh Lee has stepped up into a starting role this season and is a key contributor on both ends of the court.
“It’s different to come in and be a starter this year and have the impact I’ve had because last year I was more of a role player,” said Lee.
Lee said he’s content with where the team is currently at and motivated to see the progression they make as the season continues.
“We’re pretty good all around. We’re a tall team, we got a lot of length,” said Lee. “I’m happy with the players. We’re doing a good job stepping into roles, playing defense, and I’m just really happy with all the new guys stepping into varsity and being ready for the challenge.”
D. Bates said he’s had to make several adjustments this season to the way his team operates.
“Ever since I’ve come down here, everybody kind of knows us as this half-court, man, ‘we’re going to make you grind it out’ type team,” said D. Bates.
One of those changes has been a whole new defensive scheme. D. Bates said he’s completely changed from a man-to-man scheme defensively, to a zone scheme, taking advantage of the multiple big men he has.
“We started out in man this year and as a coach, you’ve got to evaluate, adjust, and do what’s best for your team; and now we’ve gone primarily zone, and that’s blown a lot of people’s minds,” said D. Bates. “Man is all we’ve ever done. In the last three years, I ran zone once against Oso in my first year. This year, that’s almost all we’re doing now and it’s because of the added size.”
Another change is the team is shooting more free throws per game than ever before.
“We’re averaging over 25 free throw attempts. Which means we’re aggressive, attacking the rim, and we’re trying to use our size in that advantage too,” said D. Bates.
While the depth at guard will be a concern for D. Bates, the team has surprisingly been averaging more points per game than any of his former RFHS teams.
“We’re averaging close to 60, where before we were in the lower 50’s,” said Bates. “So we’re doing good things, it’s starting to come around. We just had to get punched in the mouth a couple of times.”
In the midst of those changes from a basketball perspective, the team has also had to endure the passing of their former coach. During the summer of 2020, former varsity assistant head coach and junior varsity head coach, Chris Kuykendall, tragically passed away.
Though he had only been at RFHS for one season, Kuykendall quickly became a beloved coach by all players and a favorite among many students and parents who had the opportunity to know him.
D. Bates said losing ‘Coach K’ came as a big shock. It was something that “wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Those who got to know him and spend time with him know he was passionate about athletics and loved the kids he coached,” said D. Bates. “I miss him for his advice, his wisdom. Being a former head coach, he understood where I was coming from and what I went through during the hard times of being a head coach. He was that ear whenever things were going tough.
“I miss his laugh, the talks we would have, the bus rides … Picking on each other about our style of music. He was into 80’s rock. I was into the 90’s crunge real big, so we gave each other a hard time about who’s music was better.”
Much of what this season’s varsity team is built of played all last season under Coach K on the junior varsity level. Coach K also coached the forwards and centers, which makes up the majority of RFHS’ current roster. They directly felt the impact of his passing.
“Those kids really got to know him, really got to like him and love him … and they miss him,” said D. Bates. “And Kaden, Coach K worked with the bigs last year and Kaden was our starter. They built up a good relationship and I know its definitely affected Kaden.”
Coach K’s passing also led to D. Bates establishing a character development program for the team called “Rise Up.”
“We just try to work on the men’s character. Try to teach them life lessons,” said D. Bates. “I just want to leave a legacy, and that’s because of him (Coach K). He definitely has an impact on our program, just as much today as he did last year.”
In the future, one without COVID-19, D. Bates said he wants to rename their annual basketball tournament ‘The Coach K Classic’, and use the funds raised from it toward a scholarship in C. Kuykendall’s name.
“I know coach Seibert and Cassie Kuykendall are working together to get a scholarship as another way to honor him and help out kids, which is what he loved to do,” said D. Bates.
This year’s team consists of five seniors, three juniors, three sophomores, and one freshman.
Seniors are Lee, Harder, Ben Groseclose, Joshua Hadley, and Josh Kuykendall.
Lee and Hadley are a long pair of starting forwards whom are each averaging more than 10 points a game. Hadley is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 12-13 points per game.
“They attack the rim, they’re getting a lot of free throws, and using their size well,” said Bates.
J. Kuykendall is the son of the aforementioned C. Kuykendall.
“Chris coached Josh every year since he was little, and this year he comes in with a positive attitude,” said D. Bates. “He really tries hard, and does the best he can.”
D. Bates said J. Kuykendall has been working hard at his favorite sport, golf, and spent a lot of time over the summer perfecting his craft. He has aspirations of playing golf collegiately while pursuing a degree in the medical field.
Juniors are Phillip Krupa, Anton Dixon, and Mason Moon.
D. Bates said he loves the defensive mentality Krupa brings to the team and has stepped into a bigger role.
“He was supposed to be a sub type guy and next thing you know, because of injuries, he’s starting and gotten a lot better,” said D. Bates.
D. Bates said Dixon has been surprising a lot of people with his play as of late.
“Anton’s come in and given us some really good minutes, even scored double digits a couple of times,” said D. Bates. “He’s always smiling, always having fun, and always enjoys what he’s doing. That stuff is contagious.”
Sophomores are C. Bates, Tres Nesloney, and Mathew Vasquez.
Had it not been for an injury suffered earlier in the season, D. Bates said it was possible Nesloney could have been another starting guard to pair with C. Bates to run the point. However, D. Bates said it’s unclear whether Nesloney will return this season from injury.
Vasquez has been a force in the middle for RFHS this season. D. Bates said the substantial 6’5” center is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, and has a bright future ahead of him as he grows into his frame.
“He’s big and he uses his body well,” said D. Bates. “If we can get him stronger, physically, over the spring and summer, where he can really move people around, he’s going to be nasty on the inside.
“We had Will Brantley his junior year (2017) that was All-Region. And I think Mathew, if he continues to work, continue to just grow as a person, he’ll be the best big I’ve definitely had. I think he could definitely be one of the better bigs that’s ever come through Rockport.”
The lone freshman on the team is Ace Seibert.
D. Bates said Seibert is still making the transition from eighth grade to high school basketball, but is getting more and more acclimated to the speed of the game.
“Ace is that Ferrari that hasn’t learned how to control the speed yet,” said D. Bates. “He’s still a heck of an athlete as a freshman, but he’s going against 18-year-olds and it’s evening out a little bit.”
RFHS opened the district season Thursday, Dec. 31 in a 49-44 loss at West Oso. Their next district game is 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 8 at Ingleside.