Hilty, Scoggins lead young Lincoln Charter team

by Aaron Burns

This wasn’t how the Lincoln Charter Eagles’ boys basketball season was supposed to go.

The Eagles initially had a plethora of players returning from the 2010-11 season. A few starters remained and hopes were high for an improvement. There was also a solid core of underclassmen on which to build the junior varsity squad.

But when coach Jamie Seitz assembled his roster for the season opener, it wasn’t the same. The Eagles lost players due to transferring, in addition to injuries. Inside threat Steven George, Lincoln Charter’s lone senior, was lost 15 seconds into the season opener with a broken ankle. Guard Kollin Schrenck jumped ship to Ardrey Kell.

So Seitz was forced to go young. He called upon sophomore Christian Hilty, an East Lincoln transfer, and freshman guard Nathaniel Scoggins, and had them take on active roles on the varsity team. No one – least of all Seitz – had an idea how the youngsters would adapt to his team-first, precision style of basketball.

“Needless to say, it was a big chance right before the season started,” Seitz said.

While the young Eagles roster became acclimated to the high-speed tempo of varsity basketball, Seitz stayed patient. Sure, there would be lean times – the Eagles lost their first three games by 28 points each, and dressed just seven players most of the year – but the payoff would come at some point.

Late in the season, it has.

Lincoln Charter – 7-11 entering a Feb. 3 game against Mooresboro Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy – has finally begun to hit its stride. Seitz called part of a late January practice the “best 20 minutes I’ve seen all year.” But it’s in games where the team has really gained steam. The Eagles are no longer pushovers. They’ve learned to push back, and it’s frustrated opponents, Scoggins said.

“The first time we played East Lincoln (on Nov. 29) they just blew us out,” Scoggins said of the Eagles’ 59-31 loss. “But the next time we played them, on our home court, you could see their guys getting frustrated. They didn’t expect us to hang with them, but we did. We’ve gotten a lot better.”

Indeed they have. Scoggins, always known as a shoot-first, defend later type of player, has blossomed into a scoring threat who can hold his opponent at bay on the defensive end. And he’s just a freshman, a fact often lost on those with whom he shares the court.

Partnered with backcourt mate Hilty, the duo has anchored the Eagles’ scoring many nights. The two have also come to be symbols of the season as a whole: young, eager, and ready to make an impact. In Seitz’s eyes, that’s almost as much of a positive as winning a game.

“Obviously bringing young guys up is always a challenge,” Seitz said. “That’s (the case) for them and the coaches. Just new plays and new concepts, and the pace of the game is always tough. But they’ve handled it well.”

Lincoln Charter’s offense, a system predicated on good passing and waiting for a good shot—possessions can take up to a minute—isn’t something that even experienced varsity players can pick up easily. But after plenty of practice, Seitz said his newest team members became well-versed in the offense.

“When you get to the next level, where we play some guys who have major Division-I talent, things (are different),” Seitz said. “There’s the speed of the game where one game you may get a shot off and make it, and the next game that same shot is packed against the wall.

“(Hilty and Scoggins) have both been through that part of it. But they can see the improvement they’ve made. We thought we might not win more than a couple games, and we’ve won seven of our last 11. That’s almost miraculous.”

What the Eagles lack in depth, height and experience, they’ve more than made up for in effort this season. While many teams will pack it in when their chances of victory have eroded, Lincoln Charter has made a name for itself as a high-energy, hustling group that doesn’t stop at any point in a 32-minute contest.

That – coupled with the ball-distribution style of play – has made the team much tougher out late in the regular season.

Coupled with the injuries and forced lineup changes, it’s also made this year the most interesting of Seitz’s three-year tenure at the helm of the Eagles.

“It’s the most interesting, but (more important) we’ve essentially matched our win total from last year,” Seitz said. “And our schedule was easier last year than this year. It’s really coming together, and you can see it (on the court).”

Hilty said that while it’s become easier to find a shot and get his team into a good scoring rhythm early, a real difference between the early point in the season to its closing stages has been his ability to find open players in the passing lane. But as Seitz said, his players “had no choice but to adapt to his offense.” If they didn’t, added Hilty, they wouldn’t be playing. “We’d be guarding the cooler,” Hilty said.

After Hilty transferred from East Lincoln at the end of his freshman year, he had no idea what to expect at Lincoln Charter. Would he be on varsity? Hilty was a junior varsity mainstay with the Mustangs. Would he even fit in with his teammates? The answer: yes to both. Hilty took a leadership role within the Eagles’ varsity squad early on, and helped guide the team’s offense.

“At East (Lincoln) we ran set plays, but it was a kind of ‘take the ball to the hole, do what you can to get your own shot,’” Hilty said. “Here it’s ‘look for the best shot whether you’re taking it or someone else.’”

With just a handful of games until the Piedmont Charter Athletic Conference Tournament, the Eagles need as many wins as possible to secure a play-in game for the Class 1A state tournament. The road to a berth in sectional competition, which would be a first in Seitz’s tenure, won’t be easy. But the Eagles have made their name doing things the hard way. In Scoggins’ opinion, the team’s ceiling is high and there’s much to build on for next fall. But as for now, things are going pretty well for a young team many had written off in December.

“It’s all about heart,” Scoggins said. “I think we’re starting to come together and come around as a team. If we go out there and act like we don’t want to win it, we won’t do well.”

Added Seitz: “We practice harder than anybody. At the end of the year, you’ll usually hear guys talking about just finishing the year. Our guys want more. They’re not ready to be finished.

“I’m proud of that.”