NANTICOKE — Jake Barber dribbles into the lane. His drive forces a defender to backpedal. Barber does a quick spin and drops a floater through the hoop.
Under normal circumstances, such a pretty move against a player from rival Nanticoke would send the Hanover Area student body into a frenzy. Instead, the 20 or so people in the sweltering gymnasium barely make a sound.
Welcome to high school summer league basketball, where the atmosphere is quite different than a Wyoming Valley Conference game in the cold of winter. But the games have significance.
“You want to see what you can do from last season and see what you improved on in the offseason,” said Barber, a Times Leader All-WVC selection last season.
The summer league at Nanticoke has 10 varsity teams, including eight from the WVC. The teams use pseudonyms to avoid any issues with the PIAA, because the league is conducted during the offseason. Hanover Area goes by Breslau. Nanticoke is Ruby’s Pizza. But it’s pretty easy to connect the dots to a few teams. Mountain Top is Crestwood. South Wilkes-Barre is Meyers.
There are some other differences as well.
• Like high school games, summer league games are 32 minutes, but broken into two 16-minute halves.
• Players foul out after six fouls rather than five.
• Participation is voluntary per PIAA rules for players expected to play on the high school team. Hanover Area – aka Breslau – was missing three regulars due to other commitments.
• No one is turned away from playing. Some teams actually have players who have no intentions of playing in the winter or might be trying to determine whether high school basketball is for them.
• Substitutions are rather liberal, something that could help younger players in the long run.
“There’s a lot of available minutes for younger guys,” Nanticoke coach John Beggs said. “This is a big stepping stone for younger guys and we have a lot of underclassmen.”
The league also offers a chance to experiment a bit.
“We have a lot of guys who aren’t natural point guards and not very comfortable doing it,” Beggs said, “so this is a perfect time for them to be uncomfortable so they get better for the winter. We have a lot of our two guys, three guys, even our big men be point guards.”
Meyers coach Pat Toole agreed.
“Every kid gets opportunities during the game,” Toole said. “We have him do something he normally doesn’t do.”
Like Toole’s big man – 6-foot-5 Ryan Wasley. Wasley established himself as one of the most promising inside players as a sophomore. Yet he’ll find himself on the perimeter on occasion during summer games.
“I like it because you find out whether you’re comfortable shooting those kind of shots,” Wasley said. “It’s sort of a feeler of what you can do.”
Crestwood’s Jason Dotzel has other aspirations. The Comets will be replacing four starters from last season’s 21-4 squad. So a good summer league performance is important to the senior-to-be.
“We lost a lot of guys from last year,” Dotzel said. “We’re trying to work together as a team and bring some guys up. The games are pretty competitive. We like to get some rotations, gets some guys some reps. But when it comes down to it, we’re still trying to win every game. I know personally I get upset if we don’t win.”
While Meyers and Crestwood have been quite successful in recent seasons, Berwick has struggled. The Dawgs were 2-21 this past season as fourth-year coach Jason Kingery tries to build the program in the football-crazy town.
Football often runs into mid-November at Berwick, so the summer league allows him to evaluate players who get a late start on the basketball season.
“It’s important for us to get our football guys to play some,” Kingery said. “It gives me a good idea once the season starts because we’re usually so far behind because of the (football) playoffs.”
The summer league at Nanticoke was started about a half dozen years ago. Then-basketball coach and current athletic director Ken Bartuska said Nanticoke played in other leagues prior to forming its own.
“There were certain things we liked about them and certain things we didn’t like about them,” Bartuska said. “So we took what we thought was the best of every league.”
Teams play on Tuesdays and Thursdays at three gyms on the Nanticoke campus – one at the high school, one at the elementary school and the other at the educational center, which is connected to the elementary school. The season lasts 11 games, culminating with playoffs and a championship game on July 17.
It’s hard work, especially when it’s nearly as hot in the gym as it is outside. But it’s enjoyable as well.
“I just love playing the games,” said Barber, drenched in sweat after a victory. “Practice, that gets annoying at times. But games are fun.”