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Raptors Roll Along With a New Leader

Orford — An unselfish player who idolizes NBA assists leader Rajon Rondo, it wasn’t the easiest thing for forward Nathaniel Eastman to become the leading scorer on the Rivendell Academy boys basketball team.

Yet with the Raptors losing nearly 60 percent of their scoring production in four seniors who graduated from last year’s Vermont Division III finalist, Eastman has resisted the urge to pass as much as he was once inclined, and the results have been fruitful for Rivendell.

Eastman’s 17.3 points per game is among the best in the Upper Valley as the Raptors (7-1) set their sights on another run to Barre Auditorium this season. Despite graduating Dylan Pelletier (18.9 ppg in 2011-12) and Kyle Huntington (11.5) from among its leaders from a year ago, Rivendell’s average scoring per game is 7.4 points higher than last year’s was after eight games.

A big reason is Eastman, who scored just 4.7 ppg last year and 4.5 as a freshman.

“We needed him to step up, and he’s starting to get much more comfortable in that role,” said Rivendell coach Tim Dyke. “He’s shooting more, but he’s still not taking a lot of bad shots, which he never has. He sees the court really well.”

The lanky, 6-foot-2 Eastman — who grew at least an inch over the offseason, according to Dyke — is swift and crafty on the floor. With strong fundamentals the Fairlee native said he learned playing at the youth level in his hometown, Eastman’s execution of no-look passes is impressive. He’s also always in position for a rebound under the hoop and rarely misses a layup.

While he doesn’t mind scoring, Eastman said he’s always loved to pass. “I’m a Boston Celtics fan and always love the way guys like (Paul) Pierce and Rondo pass the ball,” he said. “That’s always been part of my game, but I have no problem shooting if it’s a good look.”

Rivendell senior captain Jack Steketee said Eastman deserves credit for putting himself in position for the open looks he gets.

“He’s unselfish with the ball, but he’s quick and plays with a lot of confidence, so he has a way of getting open,” said Steketee, whose 8.7 ppg are second on the team. “He’s not wasting a lot of shots when they’re there for him, which is helping him fill the role as our top scorer.”

Eastman is not carrying the brunt of the offense on his own. Five others are averaging between six and nine points per game for the Raptors, including sophomore Tim Stimson (6.4); classmates Cole Stever (6.5), Josh Marshall (7.3) and Luke Bell (7.8); and Steketee.

“That’s what’s making what Nate is doing more remarkable,” said Dyke. “We have a lot of different players who can score and different guys stepping up every night. And yet, he’s been able to (maintain) that consistently high average.”

Playing in a Central Vermont League consisting of both D-III and D-IV opponents, the Raptors have dominated the likes of Oxbow and South Royalton while splitting the season series with Thetford and eking out a three-point win over defending D-IV champ Twinfield.

The Raptors play seven of their last 11 on the road, including games at Twinfield and unbeaten Williamstown (9-0), which topped the Raptors handily in last season’s D-III final, 66-42.

Dyke, who speaks highly about the collective character of the individuals on the team, thinks his squad is poised for another deep postseason run.

“I knew it was going to be another good season this year. The guys are easy to coach and are very responsible players on an off the court,” he said. “Our schedule in the CVL has its share of challenges, but we don’t see some of the top teams in Division III like Leland & Gray (7-1).

“But our guys are tough and they’ll be ready for the playoffs. The Thetford game (a 75-59 road win on Jan. 12) was a physical game, and we rose to the occasion. We’re the type of team that we can play hard, but if one of guys knocks you down, we’re going to help you back up.”

The Raptors host Blue Mountain tomorrow night.

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