University City

Mustangs count on speed, talent to balance youth

Basketball season has begun at schools throughout the area. It's the time of year when coaches figure out what they have and settle on their lineups.

Coaches always say their teams are young, but Countryside Montessori head coach Nick Nichols' Mustangs are especially young. They don't have a senior on their roster and only one junior, guard David Williams.

"What was that?" Nichols asked his players at one recent practice after watching them attempt a half-court set play. "There are no words in the English dictionary to describe what I just saw."

Nichols is half joking, but as his team is growing together, moments arrive that will not appear at any how-to clinic of basketball fundamentals.

So far, the Mustangs are off to a 5-0 start, but as the season goes on and the competition gets tougher, Nichols knows his team will need to improve.

Behind that one junior, Countryside has a group of sophomores who are ready to lead the Mustangs this year and beyond.

Forwards Justin Riddle and Nick McCahan are the veteran sophomores, having been on the varsity team since the eighth grade. Forward Kadhari Bryant and guards James McLean and Jelani Scott are new to the team, but all contribute on the court.

"We have been focused so far on passing and trying to get the best possible shot each possession," said McLean, a transfer who attended Harding last year. "Coach Nichols doesn't like for us to shoot a whole lot of threes, so we are working on moving the ball around and getting good open looks."

Last year the Mustangs were 14-12 but seemed to go in cycles, winning three in a row only to lose their next two. This year they are trying to stay consistent and ward off bad shooting nights.

"We are a work in progress, in the respect that we have not all played together," Riddle said. "We are a lot more talented and have skill, but it is the first time we have been together as a group, so it will take some time to develop the chemistry we will ultimately need."

So far, everyone has been scoring well, and the newcomers are blending in as well as the team could have hoped. McCahan leads the Mustangs at more than 15 points a game, but a lot of his teammates are making contributions.

Bryant averages 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Scott adds 7.4 points and nearly six rebounds; Riddle has been steady at 6.5 points and eight rebounds; and McLean contributes nearly five points per game.

Add freshman Steven McKensie's 8 points per game, and the Mustangs are revealed as a balanced group who can get several players involved each night, making it tough for opponents to key on just one guy.

"We have a lot more athleticism than we had last year. It seemed we focused our offense too much on one player last year, but so far we are all contributing," McCahan said. "Even though we don't have tons of experience on this team, we have lots of talent, so we will continue to grow together."

The Mustangs have started well and believe this year's team not only can be more successful than last year, but can lay the foundation for Mustang basketball for years to come.

Everyone figures to return next year, so getting people comfortable in the system and used to playing together is as important now as wins and losses.

Of course, winning is good, too.

"We have started well. Winning our first five is better than losing them," Riddle said. "We don't have the overall team size as some of the teams we will play do, but we are a lot quicker. When we are on our game and put our minds to it, we can run circles around people."

Nichols will have to allow some mistakes with his inexperienced team, but there is no doubt the Mustangs have the talent to be good this season.

"Our goal is to be as successful each time out and to compete," said Scott, a transfer from Davidson Day. "This year we want to win every game that we play, but we know we are building, and by the time we are seniors we should have a great understanding of who we are."

Who they are this year, if Nichols has his way, is a fundamentally sound team that plays great defense and gives maximum effort each game.

"Our strength has to be our defense, and we have to play good on that side of the floor every night," Scott said.

If the Mustangs can keep their focus and implement the attitude Nichols brings, Riddle said, they should have a great year.

"We have to work with what we have," McCahan said. "A lot of the schools we play have more talent to choose from and a larger enrollment, but we have to play together and be smart. If we do that, we can be very good."