Without point guard Casey Rogers, Rusty Blair calls his basketball team universally soft-spoken.
Quietly or not, the Cuesta College men did some extra talking without their head coach after Wednesday’s disappointing 72-68 loss to L.A. Pierce (4-10) to open Western State Conference play.
Suddenly in a crisis, the Cougars are feeling as if their preseason’s high hopes are fading before them with Rogers back home in Montana. It’s to the point where someone has to do something, and fast, with upcoming games against two conference heavyweights in Ventura and Oxnard.
“We had a long team meeting,” Cuesta leading scorer Malte Kramer said. “We know what the problems are. We talked about all the little details we need to change, how we can get more energy in practice and the games and how we can just get out of this hole that we’re in right now.”
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The Cougars (9-9, 0-1 WSC) fought back from a double-digit deficit in the first half to go into the break tied at 33. They even led 56-52 midway through the second half.
But the closeness of the defeat to the team with the worst overall record in the conference was no consolation for a squad that started the season 4-2 and is aiming for its third straight conference title.
“We started the season strong,” Blair said, “and we had some high points. Now, we’re deep in the valley, and we have to fight though this adversity.
“I can’t believe the loss of one player has changed the chemistry of the whole team. But it has, and it shouldn’t.”
Cuesta moved to 0-3 without Rogers, whom Blair said left the school after winter break citing a lack of passion for basketball.
Rogers, a Carroll College transfer and third-year sophomore from Billings, Mont., was in many ways the main catalyst for Cuesta.
Rogers averaged 11.9 points and 3.9 assists and ranked fifth in the WSC with two steals per game. He was the Cougars’ biggest threat to draw double teams, helping other players get open.
With him gone, Cuesta has gone stagnant. Kramer, who scored a game-high 23 against Pierce and ranks second in the WSC with more than 20 points per game, has been the focus of every defense, and aside from him, no one else averages more than seven points.
After 15 games with Rogers leading the offense, his replacements are forced into new roles.
“It’s going to take a little time for the players to realize that there’s a hole to fill,” Kramer said. “You can’t just go from one game to another without your second captain. There’s a hole of leadership that we have to fill and also scoring and passing ability.
“They’re guarding me really close. It’s tough right now, but I know what potential the team has. Hopefully we can bring that out.”
The season isn’t without its encouraging signs.
Kramer, who shot 9 for 20 and 5 for 10 from 3-point range, has received recruiting attention from USC, Saint Mary’s, Idaho and Montana, and the freshman from Freiburg, Germany, could be heralded enough to land a quality scholarship offer in just one season in San Luis Obispo.
Also, former Righetti High standout and PAC 7 MVP Nick Sauer scored 16 points and tied for the team-high with six rebounds against Pierce.
After spending the initial stretch of the season out with an injury, Luis Marrero found his stroke on two 3-pointers in the first half and finished with seven points.
And thrust into the starting point guard role, Denis Dobkowski-Rylko dished out seven assists against the Brahmas.
Dobkowski-Rylko also had eight turnovers and has yet to provide the scoring punch of Rogers, but for Cuesta to earn the three-peat, scoring has to come from somewhere.
“He’s got to learn that he’s the guy we’ve got to go with,” Blair said. “Otherwise, I have to develop another guy. And we don’t have time to develop other players.
“It’s going to have to come from within the players, internal fortitude, make yourself stronger and fight through adversity.”
L.A. Pierce 104, Cuesta 60
The Cougars (2-12) fell behind by 20 in the first eight minutes and didn’t get their first field goal until Paso Robles High graduate Kati Sheldon spun to the baseline for a post-up jumper that made the score 28-8 with 12:06 left before the half.
“We played in fear of an athletic team,” Cuesta head coach Ron Barba said, “We missed a shot inside right away, had a nice look, missed it. They came down and hit a 3 and get fouled. You have this big swing right at the start, and I don’t think we ever recovered fast enough.”
Sheldon scored a team-high 26 points on 9 of 20 shooting from the floor and 8 for 11 from the free-throw line against the Brahmas (10-6), who figure to be in the hunt for a WSC title.
“Sheldon’s worked hard,” Barba said. “She rebounds well. She’s had steady numbers all year. She was fighting double teams and triple teams all second half. Her enthusiasm has been great.”
Sheldon also had a team-high 11 rebounds, but aside from her, the Cougars combined to shoot just 13 for 46 and allowed four players from Pierce to score a combined 86 points.
Monica Jackson scored a game-high 29, and Amari Hampton scored 28, including six 3-pointers for Pierce.
Cuesta’s second-leading scorer was Jayme Salim with 10 points. Rachael Warner had eight, and Anika Bauermeister had seven.