By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Fast or methodical, 3-pointers or drives, the Crane Pirates have the depth and versatility to play about any style.
It’s helped the Pirates win a lot of games and contend for championships the past two seasons, and this winter should be no different.
Crane heads into the 2020-21 season seeking its third straight conference championship and first district championship in four years.
“I think we will have a really fun team,” said Crane coach Kevin Smith. “We have several returners with lots of experience.
“I do believe we will be able to compete for conference and district championships. We’ll work toward those goals every day. There are several good teams and coaches in our conference and district, so it will be a tough task.”
Crane returns a pair of starters in seniors Isaiah Smith and Brecken Vaught.
Smith is one of the area’s top 3-point shooters. He earned first team all-conference honors in the Southwest Central League (SWCL) last season after averaging 15 points, three assists and three steals per game.
“(Smith) can create his own shot or create for his teammates,” Smith said. “He has a really good skill-set and can shoot from deep or drive to the rim.”
Vaught averaged nine points and nearly three steals per game and was an All-SWCL honorable mention.
“He’s a great on-ball defender,” Smith said. “He can shoot from the perimeter or make plays for others.”
Crane returns four bench players who made varsity contributions last season.
Seth Steele (senior), Aric Spyres (junior), Zander Mayne (junior) and Aidan Vaught (sophomore) will look for bigger roles this season.
Steele and Spyres combined for five points and about four rebounds per game last season.
“Seth’s very quick and will be an excellent rebounder and defender for us,” Smith said. “Aric’s super athletic and explosive toward the rim. He’s a really good shooter, too.”
Mayne (2.5 ppg) and Vaught (3.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg) bring additional shooting and athleticism to the floor, Smith said.
The Pirates hope their depth allows them to play in different ways.
“We have 10 guys that will be trying to get into the rotation,” Smith said. “Our possibility of depth this year will be good.
“I think this group is hungry to be successful. Our philosophy will be to play up-tempo when we can and then to slow it down and control the possessions when we need to.”
Crane finished 25-3 overall last season amid a competitive local Class 2 field.
The Pirates’ only losses came against Class 4 Bolivar and Class 5 Nixa in the Blue and Gold Tournament, then Greenwood in the Class 2 District 11 Tournament finals.
Starting in January, Crane went on a 14-game winning streak to earn the SWCL championship and surpass the 20-win mark for the second straight season.
The Pirates graduated three senior starters: guard Tyler Campbell, center Jacob Woodward and forward Wes Branstetter.
Campbell was an undersized but dynamic scoring machine who finished with over 1,500 career points. He earned SWCL Player of the Year honors last season.
“Tyler was a great competitor for us,” Smith said. “He always set out to prove everyone wrong and had an unmatched engine on the floor.”
Smith said that Woodward “absolutely controlled the paint for us for three years.” Branstetter provided toughness and versatility.
“(Woodward’s) inside presence allowed us to do a lot of things on the outside,” Smith said. “(Branstetter) was one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. He could be put into any situation and succeed.”
Crane will add new names to its lineup with the likes of senior Tanner Graham, junior Sam Woodward (junior) and sophomores Taylor Calzaretta and Nolan Brawley.
“Tanner will be great on-ball defender for us. He also has a knack for finding the rim on his drives,” Smith said. “Sam can rebound well and make 3s. He’s really stepped up his defense and toughness.”
Calzaretta and Brawley provide a glimpse of Crane’s future options in the backcourt.
“(Calzaretta) can really score around the basket. He sees the floor well and can make the pass to get us open shots,” Smith said. “(Brawley) is very gritty and tough. He can knock down the 3-pointer and attack the basket at will.”
When COVID-19 shut down Crane’s early offseason in the spring, Smith said he provided his players workouts and weightlifting routines to do on their own. Players recorded their workouts and lifts on video and sent them to Smith.
By June 1, Crane began its summer league games and in-person skill workouts.
“Hopefully we’ve been active enough during this trying year so far,” Smith said.
Crane starts the regular season November 20 at home against Greenfield.