Sharing the spotlight

Big men complete Rebels' triple threat

Big men complete Rebels' triple threat

March 12, 2004|by DAN KAUFFMAN

South Hagerstown behemoths Jesse Gutekunst and Gene Johnson are imposing forces of basketball nature, towering above the competition while enjoying a share of the spotlight with star teammate David Miner.

Together, Gutekunst, a 6-foot-8 senior, and Johnson, a 6-6 junior, will stare down at one of their toughest tests of the season when the Rebels play Lansdowne tonight at 9 p.m. in a Maryland Class 2A semifinal inside the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"I've mentioned to them a couple of times the picnic's over and we've got to be ready to go to war," South coach Bob Starkey said during a break in Wednesday's practice session. "But I think we're ready to go to war."


Miner, who averages 35 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals per game, is the heart of the Rebels (23-2). Gutekunst (11 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks per game) and Johnson (18 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) are their backbone.

"(David's) the best player around, and he'd be the heart of any team he plays on," Gutekunst said. "But if he's having an off night, Gene and I can step up, and if David's struggling with his shot, he knows enough to pass to us."

"For us to have two guys average double digits when Miner's scoring 35 a game is a testament to them," Starkey said.

Gutekunst and Johnson will need to be at their best tonight in a matchup with the Lansdowne frontcourt of 6-5 Barry Cornish (20 points, 14 rebounds, three steals) and 6-6 Chris Gilliam (10 points, nine rebounds), the undisputed leaders of the 2A North champion Vikings (21-4).

"It's just a mindset, just going out and playing my best and not worrying about the crowd, just going and getting mine, as my dad would say," Johnson said.

"I'm going to have to work a lot harder because we haven't really been challenged by anyone inside yet," Gutekunst said. "If I lose, my high school career is over, so every single game is the most important for me."

n Gutekunst made his leap to the varsity last season and made the most of it, averaging double figures in points and rebounds. Gutekunst, Miner and the since-graduated Ben Mertz led the Rebels to the Class 1A state semifinals.

In an effort to avoid the foul trouble that often plagued him last season, as well as to increase his conditioning, Gutekunst put on his running shoes last summer and shed most of the excess weight he had carried.

"I went out and ran a lot more over the summer," Gutekunst said. "That's all I did was run."

"He runs much better now, and he doesn't get tired as quickly," Starkey said.

While Gutekunst contributes offensively, especially on the offensive glass, it is at the other end where the Rebels' center is most valuable, anchoring a defense that smotheres opponents.

"Jesse is the backbone of our defense," Starkey said. "He leads us in charges (taken), leads us in blocks and leads us in rebounds. If it wasn't for Miner, he'd be the MVP of our team.

"Our defense has been extremely good since the first of January. I commend them, because I don't know how I'd attack our defense."

n Much like Gutekunst last season, Johnson made the leap onto the varsity this season and made an immediate impact, scoring 21 points in South's opener against Urbana and never looking back.

While Johnson seemed to come from out of nowhere, his path to the Rebels' starting lineup had some detours. He played on South's freshman team two years ago, then played at Broadfording last season before transferring back to South.

Back in the green and white, Johnson used the summer league to prove himself to Starkey.

"I felt like I had something to prove to him and something to prove to everybody," Johnson said. "My freshman year, everyone called me soft, and I wanted to prove to Coach I was a well-rounded player."

"More than anything else, he matured mentally and emotionally," Starkey said. "He was in 19 different directions as a freshman. He played most of the summer league and had a good season, and he asked me if he would start. I told him it was his job until he lost it."

Johnson took the job and ran with it.

"When I was on the JV, we'd scrimmage the freshmen every practice, and he'd always give me a battle," Gutekunst said. "There were rumors that he'd be coming back, and the first day of practice he was on the starting squad. ... Gene's gotten a lot tougher (since his freshman days)."

n Along with their size inside, both Gutekunst and Johnson have shown the ability to shoot from outside, a dimension that causes opponents even more matchup problems.

"That's a huge advantage," Gutekunst said. "Most centers 6-7 or taller don't like to come out on the perimeter and guard. Both of us can step out and shoot it. Not many teams can do that."

"I know if I pop out and shoot it, I always know Jesse's going to be there for the rebound, and if I try to penetrate on a drive, he'll be cutting to the basket," Johnson said.

It's a 1-2 punch inside that's worked wonders - and will have to continue to - for the Rebels.

"(Comcast) will be a new experience (for me), but I don't think anybody will be nervous," Johnson said. "David and Jesse have been there, and they'll help keep my nerves down and keep the team excited."

"I expect more this year than last year," Gutekunst said. "When Friday comes, we're all going to be really excited."

With good reason.

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