COVENTRY TWP. It would be hard to find two teams that bear less resemblance to one another than the 2015-16 and the 2016-17 incarnation of the Coventry Comets.
After winning their second consecutive Portage Trail Conference boys basketball title last season, the Comets said farewell to a coach with more than 300 wins, four senior starters - including two 1,000-point scorers - and their longtime home in the gym at Coventry Middle School.
Defending the first two PTC titles in program history won’t be easy, but an overhauled roster and new head coach Mike DiFalco will tackle the task beginning with the opener for the gym at the new Coventry High School.
“We’re very young … very inexperienced at the varsity level, but we do have a lot of talent,” DiFalco said. “A lot of sophomores and juniors who can contribute right away. We’re led by two seniors, Dusty Burkhart and Curtis Riddle, but we do a lot of good things offensively and defensively … but we have a long way to go and we have a lot to learn.”
DiFalco, 26, is a first-time head coach who graduated from the University of Akron in 2013 and worked as a graduate assistant for longtime UA head coach Keith Dambrot since then. He replaces Lynn Wess, who stepped down after last season with more than 300 career wins and took over at Tuslaw.
Along with Wess, Coventry lost its top post player, 6-foot-6 center Bryce Hargrove - now playing football for the Pittsburgh Panthers - as well as its point guard, Walsh freshman guard Conner Wess, one of its top athletes in 6-foot-6 forward Shane Sturm and top defender DuVale Patterson.
DiFalco admitted that being new to the program, he has the edge of not knowing the Comets as they were last season. He began working with the team this summer and the team went to several shootouts to get in time working together.
“I get to start fresh with this group and they get to start fresh with me,” DiFalco said.
The first-year coach admitted that the groundwork Lynn Wess laid with the program has made the transition easier. The Coventry freshman and JV teams have had plenty of success in recent years, so the players who have migrated to the varsity roster know how to win together.
Now, it’s simply a matter of them all adjusting to the varsity level and applying those same winning principles at the next level. The only familiar face on the coaching staff is assistant Devon McAfee, who has coached football at the school in recent years and has relationships with many of the basketball players.
“He (Wess) set a winning tone and culture and these guys behind those seniors were able to see that,” DiFalco said. “They’re very passionate about continuing that winning tradition and defending that Portage Trail Conference championship.”
One element of Coventry’s recent success the new coaching staff wants to continue is the up-tempo style that helped the Comets terrorize opponents in recent seasons. Believing that they have a good collection of athletes, they want to pressure teams, push the pace and create scoring chances while being unpredictable at times.
From his time at Akron, DiFalco wants to implement the same strong emphasis on defense for which Dambrot is famous. The 13th-year Zips head coach often reminds his players that if they don’t defend, they won’t play. During games, he can often be seen emphatically clapping his hands and barking, “Don’t rest … don’t rest!” to his team while they’re on defense.
“Time and time he’ll emphasize the defensive end and winning the game on that end of the floor,” DiFalco said.
Behind Burkhart and Riddle, junior point guard Drew Williams, who transferred to Coventry last year and sat out the first half of the season before becoming eligible, is back and will look to stabilize the offense in the void left by Conner Wess and Patterson.
The first big milestone for the Comets this season will come against East on Dec. 2. The chance to christen the new gym is a rare shot to make history and players and coaches are looking forward to it.
“It will be the first game in the new gymnasium, so everyone is really excited about that,” DiFalco said. “The new gymnasium, with multiple gyms and a new weight room going in, is exciting for everyone involved. We’re really excited to put it all together and come out on Dec. 2 and have a good showing in our home opener."
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