Despite young lineup, Dakota basketball eyes repeat in MAC Red

By: Timothy Pontzer | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published February 7, 2018

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The Macomb Dakota boys basketball team enjoyed a successful season last year, posting a 21-4 overall record, a Macomb Area Conference Red Division title, a trophy from the revived county tournament, and a district championship.

Paul Tocco hoped the 2017-18 campaign could carry that momentum, but the Cougars coach knew he would have to do so with a slate of fresh faces. Six players graduated, and all five starters either earned their diplomas or transferred from the program.

“It’s a definite challenge every year with a new group, but this group in particular is quite young,” Tocco said after a Jan. 31 practice. “In our top-eight players in the rotation, we have a freshman and three sophomores. That’s pretty young for a varsity team. They’re not just on the bench — they’re playing big minutes for us.”

Despite the youth movement, Tocco had guided his club to a 9-3 start to the season, at press time. The Cougars were also 7-1 in the MAC Red, leading the conference’s top division. He attributed the record to the team’s ability to overcome a slow start and by utilizing early non-conference defeats against tough completion as teaching moments.

“Every experience helps, especially at this stage,” Tocco said. “We struggled at the beginning of the season and our schedule dictated that. We played some of the top teams in the state, and those experiences have definitely helped us in the MAC Red. We’ve won some really close games in the Red. Even in those early losses, you can learn a lot. I’m very happy with our progress.”

Tocco said one upside to Dakota’s current situation is the fact that this core group of players will stay together for two to three seasons. He cited the key member as sophomore guard Ryan Rollins as the go-to option.

“(Rollins) played limited minutes for us last year with the talent we had, but it spoke a lot to his abilities that he made varsity as a freshman,” Tocco said. “He’s been phenomenal this year, definitely our go-to guy in most situations. He’s still learning every day how good he can be.”

Rollins already earned a Division I offer from Cleveland State over the summer, showcasing why he is drawing college interest with averaging 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals on a nightly basis.

“Our greatest strength is probably our ability to run in transition and get easy buckets off of layups and kick-outs due to our athleticism and quickness we have throughout the lineup,” Rollins said. “Also, we’re a team that’s been getting doubted lately, so we always come out with a chip on our shoulder and play hard. Our team is young, but we’ve been getting very close and have been creating very good chemistry. We have a very special bond and hope we can get better throughout the season.”

Rollins starts at shooting guard, while junior Mark Tocco starts at the point. Freshman Joshuah Hines also sees minutes at guard, averaging 10 points a night.

“Our guard play has been big for us,” the coach said. “Being able to handle the basketball and not get pressed is key. Most of our experience and play is coming from the guards, and if you don’t have it there, it’s very difficult to get the ball up the floor.”

Mark Tocco is the son of the longtime coach, coming off a fall which saw him start at quarterback and lead the Cougars to the playoffs. On the hardwood, Tocco is averaging 10 points, seven assists and seven boards per contest.

“(Tocco) saw some time last year, and I think that experience playing behind Jermaine Jackson Jr. benefitted him greatly,” Tocco remarked about his son. “He’s doing a lot for us and learning how to control the game and be a leader. There’s a lot of pressure at quarterback, so it’s nothing new being the point guard and being able to handle that pressure. He’s made me proud. He’s making mistakes just like anybody would, but I never have to question his effort, he’s always giving 100 percent.”

Rounding out the lineup is a trio of senior forwards in Courtez Gordon, Brayan Sterkaj and L.J. Hassell.

“Those guys have been tremendous for us as senior leaders,” the coach said. “They’ve done a great job of keeping the team together. Even though they had limited varsity minutes last year, they’ve brought experience we needed.”

Tocco praised Gordon’s efforts on the boards on both ends of the floor.

“(Gordon) is probably one of the most active offensive and defensive rebounders we’ve ever had during my time here, and that’s saying a lot,” Tocco said. “We’ve had some good-size kids who are active. But he’s always going after the basketball.”

As the team further gels, Tocco believes the unit has a chance to repeat in the Red and once again make a deep postseason push.

“I’m very proud of this group,” the coach said. “Coming in, we thought this would be a building year, but the way we’re heading, there’s no reason we can’t win the Red and do some damage in the playoffs.”

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