Utica High boys hoops looking to grow with young group

By: Jacob Herbert | Shelby - Utica News | Published December 16, 2019

 Utica High senior Nik Gjonaj goes up for a layup in a recent game against Utica Ford II. The Chieftains fell to the Falcons 69-58. At press time, Utica was 0-1 overall.

Utica High senior Nik Gjonaj goes up for a layup in a recent game against Utica Ford II. The Chieftains fell to the Falcons 69-58. At press time, Utica was 0-1 overall.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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UTICA — For Utica High boys basketball coach Dave Hinkle, the main goal for his Chieftains this season is to get better every day.

That’s often the case when a team is so young. Utica lost seven seniors to graduation last year and has just three this season. Cameron Arafat, Howard McCollom and Nik Gjonaj are the players who have been tasked with leadership roles this season.

“Those seniors are my leaders,” Hinkle said. “They’re providing an example every day in practice, and they’re doing a great job of doing that so far.”

Hinkle said the work ethic of his seniors is what he admires most about them. He said they put in the time necessary to get better, and they hold each other and the team accountable.

Arafat gave some insight as to how he and the other seniors plan to lead the team.

“We’ve got to develop them and make sure they know the plays right off the bat,” he said. “In order to run anything, you need to know the plays. We also have to make sure they’re disciplined, because freshman and junior varsity are not as disciplined as varsity.”

At press time, the Chieftains were set to start the season with three straight rivalry games against Utica Ford II Dec. 13 at home, Sterling Heights Stevenson Dec. 17 at home and Utica Eisenhower Dec. 19 on the road.

“There needs to be effort, communication and focus on every possession that we have,” Hinkle said about what he’s looking for early in the season. “Are we playing defense, limiting them to one shot and getting back on defense? Offensively, we are looking to get a good shot. If we can get a good shot, then I’m happy.”

Hinkle said the main strength of his team is his post players. Rory Montreuil is a junior forward/center who is stepping into a big role as one of those post players.

Other young players expected to step into bigger roles are sophomore Jason Azar and junior Alek Cvetkovski.

Last season, Utica finished 8-13 overall and 5-5 in the Macomb Area Conference Blue Division. Even with the regular-season struggles, the team was able to put it together at the right time for a playoff run that saw the Chieftains beat Rochester Hills Stoney Creek 49-48 in a Division 1 district semifinal game and come up just short of Troy High in the district final.

The team last year was senior-laden, and there was a sense of urgency from those players knowing that their time at Utica was coming to an end.

Arafat said the returning players learned a lot from the run last season.

“We learned we can do much better,” the senior guard said. “We kind of hit a slump last year in the middle of the season. As soon as districts hit, we got a wake-up call and knew we could be so much better in the championship.”

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