WRENTHAM - King Philip Regional High athletic director Steve Schairer pursed his lips as he peered into the school gymnasium to see whether there was any space - any space at all - for a few more fans to squeeze in.
The 600 seats in the stands weren’t enough to handle the crowd at Tuesday night’s game against Hockomock League rival Mansfield High
Fans sat in the aisles. Twelve-year-olds rolled around on the floor underneath a media table. A few more individuals stood in the doorways of the gymnasium, propped on their toes to see inside.
It was so crowded that the King Philip players, whose bench is a section of the front row in the five-row bleachers, had trouble finding space to sit and watch.
“I can get four more standing-room-only,’’ Schairer called to fans still waiting to buy tickets. “Limited view!’’
Every boys’ game at King Philip has become a must-see event for the suddenly hoop-crazed fans in the towns of Wrentham, Norfolk, and Plainville. The community has responded emphatically to the program’s total transformation over the last four years.
When coach Sean McInnis was hired before the 2008-09 season, the program was in the midst of a losing streak that stretched to more than 40 games. The crowds were sparse.
“It was so quiet,’’ McInnis said, “you could hear parents’ conversations on the other side of the gym.’’ Now, every home game is deafening.
The team’s popularity soared last season when the Warriors made their run toward their first MIAA state tournament appearance in 15 years, and the following grew with each win. When the Warriors advanced to the Division 2 South final, their supporters packed the bleachers at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The excitement has carried over to this season: King Philip sold out its season-opener against Franklin.
The crowds have been, in large part, tied to the team’s success. And the team’s success is due in large part to its largest player, Jake Layman. The humble 6-foot-9 senior captain is already the program’s career scoring leader. Ranked the 53d best recruit nationally by ESPN, he has accepted a scholarship offer to play at Maryland.
He could have left King Philip for a prep school, where recruitment opportunities are stronger, many believe. But four years ago he and McInnis promised each other they would turn the King Philip program around, and their loyalty has been rewarded.
“Four years ago, there was nobody in there,’’ Layman said. “Now we’re selling out every game. It’s awesome. It gets me fired up. When there’s people packed in there, screaming, it’s easy to get fired up.’’
The crowds are also the result of the coach’s long-term plan. McInnis said he was determined to build his program from the ground up, starting with the local youth leagues.
McInnis and his players established a youth program in Norfolk. In four years, it has grown from 60 players to 320 between kindergarten and fifth grade. The Wrentham youth program now has almost 200 players.
King Philip players volunteer as coaches and referees in both leagues. They also help run youth clinics and camps in the area, and one day every month the team travels to a local elementary school or King Philip Middle School to read to students, or talk to them about how to handle bullying.
“We’re trying not only to develop the younger kids about getting them to understand the importance of education and athletics, but we’re teaching our kids,’’ McInnis said. “Their role in the community is more than on the basketball court. Playing basketball at King Philip is more than a 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. practice commitment. It’s a full-time gig.’’
Younger players are now excited about playing basketball at King Philip when they’re old enough. Four years ago, just seven of the 21 eighth-graders in King Philip’s MetroWest youth basketball program enrolled at the regional high school. This fall, all but two of the 21 MetroWest eighth-graders did.
Ben Norris, a guard on the sixth-grade MetroWest travel basketball team, learned some of the game’s fundamentals from Layman at a clinic last summer. Moments after watching Layman throw down a two-handed dunk against Mansfield, Norris said he hopes to play for the Warriors some day.
“I wanna dunk it,’’ he said. “I’ve got good hops.’’
King Philip lost to the Hornets, 59-50, dropping to 1-1. But one loss isn’t likely to keep the crowds away.
Long after the game, players, their families and fans lingered on the court, soaking up a little more of the fresh air that’s been breathed into King Philip basketball.
“This,’’ Schairer said, “is the way it should be.’’
Rivers School girls notch another win
The only thing that may stop the Rivers School girls’ basketball team: poor shooting.
The independent school in Weston continued its perfect start for coach Bob Pipe by winning its own holiday tournament. Rivers (6-0) beat Miss Porter’s School, 60-46, and then took down Pomfret in the final, 71-38.
Senior forward Tayra Melendez was named tournament MVP and sophomore center Jen Berkowitz, a transfer from Wayland High, was named to the all-tourney team after averaging 16.5 points per game.
“When we’re shooting the ball well, which we did, we’re real tough,’’ Pipe said.
“We’ll battle, we’re big, we’re as athletic as most. It sometimes will come down to, can we shoot the ball? Are we on or not? Fortunately for us, that weekend we shot the ball real well,’’ he said.
Rivers has a wealth of shooters. Junior Emilee Daley of Sharon, senior Brooke Brennan of Weston, and senior Megan Kerbs of Natick are threats from the perimeter. Brennan had four three-pointers in the first half of the final game, while Daley hit three treys in the second half.
Pipe said he’s not worried that his team will lose its touch over the holiday break.
“I’m lucky. All my girls will find a way to get into a gym. They’re all really dedicated.’’
Here and there
Wellesley High senior Cooper Ainge, son of Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, had 15 points while his teammate Harry James scored 23, including seven 3-pointers, to help Wellesley beat Dedham, 71-46, last week . . . Another well- known family continues to be represented in the high school ranks as sophomore Gabby Coppola put up 18 points to help Watertown beat Arlington last week, 61-50. Coppola’s brothers, Marco (class of 2011) and Anthony (2007), were both 1,000-point scorers for the Raiders.