It’s a new beginning for the Robbinsville High boys’ basketball team, and the good news is that it won’t be with all new players.
Conor Hayes has taken over as the Ravens’ head coach, and inherits four starters who are back from a 7-18 team. There are eight seniors on the roster.
“I know they took their lumps last year but the experience they got with the speed, the tempo, the physicality that we’re going to have to play at, I think that’s goint to help them a lot going into this season,” Hayes said. “The special thing about this group is they just love playing with each other. They’re unselfish, they share the basketball, they talk on defense. They play tough man-to-man defense. I know it looked like we struggled last year, but those were some critical learning situations that will help us move forward.”
Hayes was previously an Allentown High assistant, so he is familiar with some of his talent and obviously with the Colonial Valley Conference. He’s especially acquainted with senior point guard Corey Kale and 6-foot-5 senior forward Luke Olshevski, having coached them in the Mid-Jersey Mavericks AAU program when they were in 8th grade.
“Luke has grown seven inches since then so that’s a nice little adjustment for him,” Hayes said. “He was a guard back then, he’s a big special, specimen now who can play inside and outside. Luke’s physicality inside and Corey’s athleticism always jumped off the page when watching the films.”
Olshevski is looking forward to once again playing for Hayes, whose father played for Dartmouth after a standout career at St. Peter’s Prep.
“Coach Hayes is a very energetic coach,” Olshevski said. “He knows what teams we should be pushing the tempo against, and what teams to slow down and control the ball against. He is very competitive and has no problem giving motivation to his players. In practice, he is a big believer in working on fundamentals within your position. He will give everyone on the team a specific role. As long as we know our roles and stick to them, we will have success.”
Hayes played high school basketball for West Windsor-Plainsboro North. After graduating in 2006, he attended Louisville and, while he couldn’t quite crack Rick Pitino’s roster, he loved the big-time atmosphere of the Cardinals’ games. He earned a degree in health and human performance and a master’s in teaching with a focus in physical education K-12.
Hayes currently teaches health and phys-ed at Allentown High School, where he spent the past five years as Jay Graber’s assistant in football and basketball. When the Robbinsville job opened up, Hayes jumped at the chance.
“I’ve obviously learned a lot with football, through being around Jay, but basketball has always been something that I’ve understood on an Xs and Os level,” he said. “I understood it on a training level as well. I always wanted to be in charge of my own program. I’m looking forward to not only this season but the off-season—which I unfortunately didn’t get with these guys—to really start implementing the things we want to do in our program.”
Hayes was not confirmed by the school board until Sept. 27. To make things even tougher, Allentown went to the state football finals, which meant he was at Redbird practices through Dec. 3. When they finished, he rushed to Robbinsville to conduct 6:15 hoop practices.
“The kids were great about it, there’s been no complaints about going late the first two weeks,” Hayes said. “They’re energized, they’ve been working very hard. They’ve been very receptive about changes we’re trying to make in the program. It’s been very promising so far. I’m very happy with what I’ve seen, and I’m looking forward to the season.”
As are the players, as they attempt to end a long history of losing at Robbinsville. Hayes was pleasantly surprised at his new team’s size. Olshevski pointed out that Brendan O’Connor, Derek Taylor, Tyler Milchman, Colin Riley, Grayson Cooke, Carnie Bragg, Kale and Bobby Stewart are all swingmen between 6-foot and 6-foot-3.
“Then we have Ben Hutchinson and Amir Basma as long forwards,” Olshevski said. “Having all that length and height on the floor will give us an advantage for rebounding and defense.”
Olshevski is coming off a banner year in which he averaged 17.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, while Kale averaged 9.0 points, with season totals of 40 steals and 43 assists. O’Connor and Hutchinson also add experience up front, and Hayes liked how Bragg and Milchman played in the preseason.
“It’s really comforting to know we are returning four starters,” Olshevski said. “One thing we lacked last year was experience. Now that we all played last year, we will have an experienced lineup with tons of leadership. All of us have been playing together since middle school so we are all very familiar with each other on the floor. I’m confident in any of the eight seniors stepping onto the floor and making big plays. Everyone has been playing really hard and competing for spots.”
Hayes’ strategy is to play the kind of game the opponent does not play. If a team likes to run, the Ravens will slow it down. If a team likes to play a halfcourt offense, Robbinsville will push the ball.
“We want to control the tempo,” he said. “A lot of it will be us blending what’s best to help us win each game, depending on what the other team wants to do. But the core values will always remain the same. We’ve got to play good team man-to-man defense, we’ve got to be talking on defense and we’ve got to be physical.”
The young coach can’t stress that last point enough.
“If we’re not physical, we’re going to struggle,” he said. “That’s something we’ve talked about a lot this preseason. I think a lot of coaches in the area, when they see Robbinsville on the schedule they think it’s a team they can just overpower physically. We really put a lot of emphasis on picking up our level of physicality and our defensive prowess.”
The players immediately bought into Hayes’ preachings, as Olshevski said, “He fits our team perfectly.”
“All of the guys have great things to say about him,” the forward added. “We all agree that he is a very smart coach. The success he had playing basketball, and learning from his father has definitely given him a great understanding of the game. Over the first couple weeks, he has taught our guys so many things to make the game much simpler.”
The biggest change has been a completely revamped offense with new sets and plays that Olshevski feels can bring success as long as the Ravens stick to their characteristics.
If everything breaks right, both player and coach feel Robbinsville can get an elusive winning season while making the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II tournament.
“They playoffs are definitely the goal,” Hayes said.
“As long as we continue to build chemistry and stick to Coach Hayes’ offensive and defensive principles we can have a great season,” Olshevski said. “We just need to know our roles and perform them the best we can.”