It’s quite unlike Coach Don Stewart and the Lely High boys basketball team to stay out of the gym during the Christmas holiday break.
But changing up the routine a bit, that’s exactly when the veteran coach and his 9-3 squad have done. And Stewart thinks he and his players will return to practice today refreshed and ready to charge into the meat of the season.
“I don’t think we’ll be rusty at all,” Stewart said Monday while going over some notes from the first part of the season. “We should be ready and rarin’ to play.”
For the first time in a number of years, Lely did not play in a holiday tournament between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The team had been a regular in the Naples Daily News Gulfshore Shootout. That tourney ran all last week at Golden Gate High.
But this season, Stewart put his team into a pre-Christmas tourney in order to give his athletes — and himself — some free time during the holidays.
“My first 10 years or so at Lely, we always played some type of pre-Christmas tournament,” he said. “Then the kids could be with their families to go where they needed to go and do what they needed to do.
“People who aren’t involved in sports just don’t realize the time you put in when you play between Christmas and New Year’s,” he went on. “You’re either playing games or you’re practicing. You don’t really have a holiday at all. I love the sport, but sometimes you just need to do some other things.”
Stewart says he has enjoyed spending time with his family and having a flexible schedule.
“My wife told me the other day this has been our best Christmas ever,” he said.
The week before school let out for the holidays, the Trojans played in the North of the River Christmas Tournament at Cape Coral High. Lely’s first game in the event was the very next afternoon after losing a hard-fought battle by one point to rival Golden Gate the night before.
Lely opened with a loss to Dunbar High of Fort Myers in the opening round, then beat Naples and host Cape Coral to close out 2-1 in the tournament.
“That was kind of a scheduling mistake,” Stewart lamented. “To play at 3 in the afternoon after having such a tough game the night before wasn’t good for us. But that’s the way it goes. When you’re invited to play in a tournament, you don’t set the schedule. You just have to make the best of the situation.
“We ended up beating Cape by 30 points in the last game up there,” he added. “I think we kind of got our legs back. We had four games in five days and it was kind of a rough stretch.”
The Trojans will have all this week to get back into the swing of things before playing at Fort Myers High on Jan. 9.
“That will be a good early test for us. I think we’ll get a pretty good idea of where we are in that game,” Stewart said. “I have been kind of reviewing things we’ve done, and not just Xs and Os, but things like player development and what we can do to help our players improve.”
The pre-holiday results have put Stewart in a confident — yet cautious — mood.
“We have a very good team,” he reflected. “But we don’t have very good size and we knew that could become a problem. We ran up against a 6-8, 235-pound kid against Miami Killian in our Pepsi Shootout and had some trouble.
“But we knew we had some good kids coming back this year, kids who could run and shoot the ball and play pretty solid defense. We were hoping those things would carry us to a successful season and we’re off to a good start.”
The guard play of Evan Taylor and Marco Island’s Dylan Defeo has been a plus and the Trojans also have gotten sound efforts from Kevin Swisher, Ely Ducatel and Ricky Garcia.
Stewart looks at the upside.
“I really like how hard my players play,” he said. “They really are a good group. They get after it, so to speak and we like that.
“Still, they’re high school kids and that means there’s always a lot of room for improvement. Basketball season is a long season. Some kids start out and don’t miss a shot. Others take a while. The trick is getting everybody together to make that run at the end.”