Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic senior Kazuma Lane hit a trio of threes in the first half and finished with five makes from downtown to help the Valiants down Westside Christian.

For a team supposedly in limbo when it comes to finding its foothold in Class 4A play and trying to usher in a fresh posse of stars, the Valley Catholic boys basketball team sure looked sharp against an old 3A foe.

Cutting apart Westside Christian’s 2-3 zone with crisp ball movement and motion to get in scoring position, the Valiants shook off a so-so first half and ran away from the Eagles 59-46 on Dec. 30. The Valiants, the 2014 3A state champs, led just 33-29 midway through the third quarter, but went on a 12-2 run thanks to a renewed dedication to defense and a trio of three-pointers to close the quarter and take complete command of the contest. And, the Valiants executed their characteristic second half on alumni night with past stars such as Liam Cassidy, Carter Buuck and Gabe Taylor watching from the stands.

On top of that, the Valiants said, head coach Joel Sobotka lit into his Valley squad at halftime, reminding them to play for the program and the guys who came before like Buuck and Taylor, who won a state title and established a lasting legacy.

“(Sobotka) told us we were playing for Valley Catholic,” said junior point guard Shankar Krishnakumar. “We had to play for our program and for each other. Tonight, we played for ourselves at times, but we have to learn from that. It’s a learning process.”

Getting the hang of Valley’s core principles and beliefs has been an admitted adjustment, not just for the newcomers in the rotation such Krishnakumar, Avery Jones, Joey Braun and Ben Robbins, but also for Valley’s incumbents, Kazuma Lane, JD Menkens and Drew VanderZanden.

They’ve been asked to do what they did last year as role players, but branch out as well into more assertive roles. And, as Lane noted, it’s early in the season and the Valiants are still adjusting against elite non-league competition.

“One of the things this team is missing is a leader,” said Lane. “Part of that is my fault. I have to do that because I’m a senior. I’m trying to get better at that and pump this team up. I’ve never done this, so it’s an experiment. I’m trying to figure it out by myself.”

Krishnakumar has the unenviable task of filling Jarrett Gray’s shoes at the point guard spot, but so far, the junior has been solid setting up the offense and carrying out Sobotka’s progressive offensive schemes.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior point guard Shankar Krishnakumar drives toward the basket in the second quarter of the Valiants victory versus Westside Christian.

Jones is an athletic energizer at forward who complements VanderZanden’s perceptive, pass-first mentality in the pivot. And although Lane alleged Valley lacks one true leader, Krishnakumar commended his senior comrades for stepping up and showing the way.

“Our teammates have done a great job of picking us up,” said Krishnakumar. “They’re making us be a threat on offense and play great defense. They’ve really supported us and got us into those roles. We’re getting to know each other, and it’s all about chemistry. We’re figuring ourselves out. We’re getting guys back from injury and we’ll just keep getting better.”

“I trust this team,” said Lane. “I trust that they’ll make plays and run the right plays. I think we’re going to be good. We just have to get rid of that mentality of ‘We’re better than everybody else.’ We just have to go compete.”

In the first half versus Westside Christian, Krishnakumar said Valley didn’t penetrate enough against the Eagles’ zone and were content passing the ball around the perimeter, which made the Valiants easier to guard.

Once the Valiants made a concerted effort to get inside the defense, expose the cracks and work the ball inside-out, the points started to flow and the lead expanded.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic senior wing JD Menkens rises for a mid-range jumper in the fourth quarter of the Valiants preseason win over Westside Christian.

By shifting the basketball around the outskirts of the Eagle defense, Valley found creative ways to get Lane the basketball with free looks to fire. Be it flare screens, down picks or skip passes from Menkens over the top of the zone, the senior sharpshooter was able to find room and knocked down three “threes” in the first half. Lane buried two more three-pointers in the third and Krishnakumar tacked on another to open up a 45-31 lead.

Always on balance and squared up ready to shoot on the catch, Lane’s lightning quick release got off volley after volley before Westside Christian could close on the wing.

“When I was open, I was going to shoot it,” said Lane. “I knew (Westside Christian) so I had to be ready to shoot and then pass to the guys who were open and let them make plays.”

Ben Robbins scored six points in the fourth, showing off an ambidextrous touch around the rim, while Jones was everywhere: crashing the glass, dishing to VanderZanden from block-to-block or making free throws at the charity stripe.

Braun and Krishnakumar each converted high-difficulty, old-fashioned three-point plays in traffic after picking the pockets of Westside’s guards at the head of Valley’s defense.

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