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Up-Tempo Raptors Save Their Best Work for After Halftime

Rivendell guard Kolin Huntington dribbles down the court flanked by Cody Williams, center right, and Thetford's Brandon Gray, left, and Cody McCusker, right, during their game in Orford, N.H. on January 15, 2014. Rivendell won the game 57-44. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Rivendell guard Kolin Huntington dribbles down the court flanked by Cody Williams, center right, and Thetford's Brandon Gray, left, and Cody McCusker, right, during their game in Orford, N.H. on January 15, 2014. Rivendell won the game 57-44. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Orford — If one thing hurt the Rivendell Academy boys basketball team during its 18-5 season a year ago, it was a tendency to lose some of its edge in the second half. That hasn’t been a problem for the Raptors this season, who are outscoring opponents by an average score of 20-6 in the third quarter after leading four of five opponents by single digits at halftime.

Run-and-gun Rivendell’s persistent aggressiveness is big reason why the Raptors are 5-0. Unlike last season, the Raptors have been putting foes away in the third quarter rather than allowing them to make the second half competitive. The change is noticeable for first-year Rivendell coach Jeff Huntington, who was previously team’s jayvee coach and assistant under previous mentor Tim Dyke.

“Last year, we really struggled in the third quarter,” said Huntington, whose team has won by an average score of 64-36. “This year, we’re excelling in the third quarter and I don’t really know what to attribute that to. It’s as if you tell them everything they’re doing wrong (at halftime) and they go right out and fix it. Whatever the reasons, it’s been crucial for us.”

Having returned four of five starters from last year’s Vermont Division III semifinalist, the Raptors have also been carried by relentless man-to-man defense to set up its fast-break attack. Forcing turnovers and snaring rebounds, Rivendell is often back to the other end of the floor before opponents know how to react.

The running style is something Huntington, a 1,000-point scorer at Orford High in the early 1980s, first learned while playing for Barry LeBarron and the Bobcats. The approach continued at Orford/Rivendell under Dyke and Steve Colby, among others, over the years.

“For us at Rivendell, that’s just what basketball is,” Huntington said. “It’s about rebounding and getting out on the fast-break, a real up-tempo style. It all starts on the defensive end and the boys understand that.”

Rivendell is 5-0 for the second straight season despite losing center and team leader Jack Steketee to graduation. Nate Eastman, who led the team last season with 14.3 points per game, is now averaging 17.4 after a game-high 22 in the Raptors’ 57-44 win over rival Thetford on Wednesday night.

Eastman has had plenty of help on the offensive end, with scoring contributions coming from a number of different teammates. Senior point guard Luke Bell (11.0 ppg) scored a career-high 27 points in the Raptors’ rout of Richford on Monday, but scored just one point Wednesday while guard Cole Stever and forward Josh Marshall each chipped in 11.

“I think one thing really helping is that we have more (versatility) this season as a unit,” Marshall said.

Added Bell, Marshall’s fellow co-captain: “Nate’s having another great season, but we’re in a situation where anyone could lead the team in scoring on a given night.”

The Raptors’ height is also a boon — all five starters stand at least 6 feet — and it helps that they’re in shape. Many of them are soccer players who spent the autumn months running up and down the field for Rivendell’s boys soccer team, and even those who didn’t showed up for basketball in good conditions. Center Shamus Peyton, replacing Steketee, ran cross-country.

“We just have a lot of guys who work hard, want to play defense and play up-tempo basketball,” Huntington said. “They all showed up in shape, and we spend a lot of time on running drills in practice. I think it’s paying off.”

The biggest roadblock for the Raptors in recent years has been Williamstown, a two-time defending state champ that was the No. 5 seed when it upset second-ranked Rivendell, 66-42, in the 2012 championship game at Barre Auditorium. The Blue Devils were a powerhouse last year, beating Rivendell three times — including back in Barre, in the semifinals — on the way to an undefeated season.

Williamstown lost only one starter from last year’s 23-0 team and is 7-0 entering tonight’s game at the Sharon Academy. The Raptors, a Central Vermont League foe of Williamstown’s, are convinced they’ll compete well against the Devils this season. The teams play each other twice in a nine-day span next month, first in Williamstown on Feb. 5 before Rivendell closes out its regular-season home schedule with the Blue Devils on Feb. 13.

“We’re ready to go,” Huntington said. “We consider every game to be an important game, but we’ve got two against (Williamstown) and we know we can play with them. They’ve earned being the two-time defending champions, but they’ve got to pay attention to us, too.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.