Anyone expressing high expectations to coach Scott Graffam about his Oxford Hills boys’ basketball team in the preseason was greeted with the yeah-but.
As in, “Yeah, but we only have two returning players with any varsity experience.”
Yeah, but that’s more than enough if they’re the right ones.
One-third of the way through a ridiculously razor-close campaign in the KVAC, juniors Andrew Fleming and Tyus Ripley have been every bit the indomitable one-two punch that rival coaches and players expected.
“The other kids are starting to get that those guys have to do it for us to win,” Graffam said.
Even with opposing defenses unswervingly focused on stopping them, and even with Fleming fighting an extended battle with the flu, the two players who carried the Vikings from a No. 6 seed to the Class A East final in February are at it again.
Ripley has been the pleasant surprise, leading his team in scoring the past five games and averaging 17 points per game.
“Last year there were a lot of scorers, so I couldn’t,” Ripley said. “I focused on my defense. This year I was hoping to score a little bit more, and with him being out, I had to score a lot more.”
After erupting for 27 points and 18 rebounds in a 62-61 opening-night loss at Edward Little, Fleming (15.3 ppg) has made the most of his managed minutes, dishing and rebounding and blocking shots while his shooting was under the weather.
He’s still the centerpiece, widely considered a Division I prospect.
“I’ve been sick lately, so I haven’t been scoring as much,” Fleming said. “Tyus has been taking a lot of the load lately. I’ve been looking for Tyus on backdoor cuts.”
The 6-5 Fleming and 6-3 Ripley combine size and strength with the quickness and ball-handling skills of guards.
It has allowed each to fill a variety of roles while the talented but inexperienced supporting cast matures from game to game.
“I think it’s helped that back in middle school they used to play with me and Tyus, so the chemistry is there,” Fleming said. “It’s behind shades, I guess you could say. We have to remove the shades.”
Lately, to paraphrase an almost-forgotten 1980s song, the future is so bright that Oxford Hills might want to keep wearing them.
Junior Blake Slicer has emerged as a steadying presence and deadeye foul shooter at point guard. The strength of Jake Yates, Patrick Macro and Jake Beauchesne in the paint has been a gift to Fleming, giving him both open lanes and the freedom to create opportunities for teammates.
“They have been a lot better than I expected,” said Ripley, who laughed before clarifying what didn’t immediately sound like a compliment. “They’re just bigger games, and faster, and I know last year my first varsity year it was hard for me to keep up with that.”
When the score and the collars both tighten in the fourth quarter, however, Fleming and Ripley are most likely to find one another.
That was the case when Fleming flipped the ball to Ripley for consecutive backdoor-cut baskets that guarded a fourth-quarter lead in Tuesday’s 62-51 victory at Lewiston.
“We pretty much just make eye contact,” Fleming said. “We play all the time, at school or just pickup. That’s where most of the chemistry comes.”
Oxford Hills used late free throws to chase away Lewiston and Lawrence. In addition to EL, the Vikings also lost at Brunswick by a single point.
“We could have won either one,” Ripley said.
Graffam quipped in November that his goal was to not start 0-6.
In reality, over. 500 is what he wanted to find under the Christmas tree.
“Before the season started I said to my assistants, I’d take 4-2,” the coach said. “I didn’t want to be worse than that.”
Yeah, but with Fleming and Ripley on his side, there’s a good chance it’s only going to get better.