WRV boys basketball riding growth spurt

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-09-2023 8:26 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — If this is what a rebuilding year looks like for White River Valley boys basketball, look out for the Wildcats in a year or two.

Just about everything is new for WRV this year. The head coach, DJ Craven, spent the last four years as an assistant to Mike Gaudette, taking over after Gaudette departed for Hartford. Apart from sophomore guard Brayden Russ, the full starting lineup is new as well, following the graduations of DJ’s son Dominic Craven, Weston Trombly, Arliss Spaulding and Austin Tracy.

Those old faces had the VPA Division IV championship in their grasp last March after Dominic Craven found Russ for a go-ahead layup with 10 seconds left in the championship game. But WRV’s hearts were broken moments later when a 3-pointer by Blue Mountain’s Jacob Dube rattled around the rim and dropped through at the buzzer.

“I was lucky enough to be the only person on this team to ever experience what it is truly like to play at (Barre Auditorium),” Russ said. “The atmosphere, it’s second to none in Vermont basketball. It’s where you want to end up, and to come so close last year, it fuels me day in and day out to get back there.”

Instead of starting alongside four seniors, Russ now starts with three other sophomores — guard Wyatt Cadwell and forwards Zander Clark and Dominic’s younger brother, Donavan Craven — as well as junior forward Tattin Griffin. WRV does have three seniors, but only forward Reid Penta was on the varsity team last year, and guard Zach Frary is playing for the first time since he was a freshman.

The new-look Wildcats got off to a rough start, falling by 20 points in the season opener to Hartford, Gaudette’s new team, at the Stretch Gillam Kickoff Classic. In the consolation game the following evening, WRV fell behind, 17-2, after a quarter to Green Mountain and could not quite climb out of the big hole.

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“Most of them are coming off JV,” DJ Craven said. “The speed of the game is what catches them. At the beginning of the season, I’d get on them and they would come over to the bench and shut down. They’re not doing that now; they’re getting that maturity.”

Although the Wildcats moved up to Division III this winter, their schedule is still laden with D-IV teams, which helped them recover after that rough first weekend. Now 10-6 with four games left in the regular season, half of WRV’s wins have come against D-IV foes, though the latest of those was a 67-60 triumph over a Rivendell team that was the top seed in last year’s postseason.

And some of the old guard is still around, as Trombly and Dominic Craven have transitioned into assistant coaching roles. The Wildcats’ other assistant, Brent Cadwell, is Wyatt’s father and the husband of Thetford Academy girls basketball head coach Jolene Cadwell.

“They have a lot of knowledge, they interact well with the boys and they can still run,” DJ Craven said of the two recent graduates on his staff. “We have a big guy we’re going to play, Wes will be the focal point. We have a guard, Dom is the focal point. It’s great to have them.”

Still, teams that are more battle-tested have had their way with WRV. Woodstock entered its game in South Royalton on Jan. 28 with a 3-6 record but had played the likes of Hartford, Brattleboro and Fair Haven, and the Wasps hammered the Wildcats, 59-39. Three days later, WRV fell at home to Long Trail, the top team in Division IV, in a rematch of the Cats’ two-point win in last year’s semifinals.

Wednesday’s 63-52 loss to Bellows Falls, a D-III contender, was another learning opportunity. WRV had called two timeouts before scoring a point as the Terriers raced out to a 20-0 lead and held a 40-15 edge at halftime. The Wildcats never stopped fighting, though, pulling within single digits late in the fourth quarter before running out of time.

“We were kind of careless with the basketball (early in the season),” Wyatt Cadwell said. “We’ve grown more into team play, and we’re driving and kicking and we run our plays a lot more fluidly.”

WRV has a full week off after the Bellows Falls game before a home date with Green Mountain, which the Wildcats defeated by 17 on the road in mid-January after the neutral-site loss in December. They play Twin Valley, a D-IV bottom-feeder, twice to finish out the season, sandwiched around a second matchup with Rivendell on Feb. 21.

The comparatively soft schedule is probably the best thing this young team could ask for — it has given the sophomore core a chance to get comfortable in their roles and, they hope, pave the way for more playoff success.

“It is rebuilding; other than that, they’re good,” DJ Craven said. “Their IQ is there; it’s just the young things that they do wrong. Once they figure it out, they’re going to make some noise. Even this year, it’s not over. We’ve got a pretty good, tough road ahead of us.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

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