GROTON - Once you drive through the narrow, sparsely illuminated, tree-smothered roads of Groton, locate the high school, and approach the gymnasium, you will undoubtedly hear the deep, raspy voice of 15-year basketball coach Keith Woods.
It was surprisingly warm on Wednesday and the doors to the Groton-Dunstable Regional High gym were propped open with garbage cans. But even from the parking lot, the coach’s voice dominated over the sound of a dozen bouncing basketballs.
Loud and demanding, the coach is the definition of disciplined. His hair is short, handshake firm and his shirt is neatly tucked into his nylon shorts. He’s always standing tall and straight, and when he begins to talk, his team usually goes quiet.
A graduate of Worcester State, where he also played basketball, the veteran coach has an eye for every detail of the game; his constant demand for perfection comes as no surprise to those who know him well.
“We’ve struggled with turnovers the past few games,’’ said longtime assistant coach Greg Gillette. “So practice might be tough today.’’
Just a few minutes in, Woods was already hollering and handing out pushups like specials at a restaurant.
Even though the Crusaders are actually having quite a season (10-3 through Wednesday, with an offense that averages nearly 70 points per game, best in the Midland Wachusett League), they have lost two in a row, and no mistake in practice has gone unnoticed.
A turnover resulted in 20 pushups for the whole team (there were 140 dished out during this practice session). Wide passes, blown coverage on defense, or a failed attempt at a box-out signaled a sprint to the baseline.
And beyond the punishment of conditioning is the power of the coach’s words. His players won’t deny it - Woods is frustrating to listen to.
“What are you thinking?’’ Woods routinely bellowed. “This isn’t rec league!’’
But even the small mistakes that were made in the first hour of practice began to dissipate in the latter portion.
Pushups became layups. Sprinting was only done during fast breaks. The squad started gaining some momentum, and Woods gave a few rare compliments, even if the words did seem difficult to get out. He calls 6-foot-4 senior guard Liam Barberich the second-best shooter he’s ever had.
“This team is a work in progress,’’ explained the coach. “It’s like a Ferrari: You lose a lug nut and the thing goes 50’’ miles per hour.
When Will Peregoy first joined the varsity squad four years ago as a freshman, he was petrified.
He knew Woods by reputation, and it didn’t take long to realize the stories were true. But the strong excel under his conditions, and Peregoy has learned how to deal with the pressure.
“It’s pretty scary when he’s yelling and spit’s flying,’’ said Peregoy, who is hovering around 700 career points, with an outside shot at becoming the seventh player under Woods to reach 1,000. “You learn to channel that anger. Sometimes you have to put it away and keep playing.’’
Woods just wants the best from his players.
Over the previous 14 seasons, he has sent many off to play in college while piloting Groton-Dunstable to five Mid-Wach B Division titles, and three Division 2 Central sectional titles. His career record through Tuesday was 214-102. But he’s never won a state championship.
The times he has come close still hurt. The 2010 state semifinal against Springfield’s Sabis International Charter is one that isn’t brought up around here.
Earlier that season, the Crusaders had beaten Sabis, 52-48, in a Hoophall Classic game.
And during the state semifinal, they had taken a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter, but suddenly the offense went quiet. Groton-Dunstable missed a buzzer-beater, and lost by one point.
Sabis went on to win the state championship in a 31-point victory over Falmouth.
“That one hurt,’’ Woods said. “And the next year people had us winning about four games.’’
Groton-Dunstable won 13 games in 2010-2011.
Woods thrives on the criticism and doubters, and he spreads some of that to his squad.
Senior cocaptain Kyle Romich is a 6-foot-3, do-it-all point guard who was a big piece to the Crusaders’ success early this season.
But he had a slippery handle on the ball over the last four games, when the Crusaders went 1-3, helping to push the team’s turnover rate to 25 after it averaged about 12 all season.
“When he struggles, we struggle,’’ Woods said. “And it’s not often. But the last two games he’s had to reassess. It’s mental, it’s not physical. He’s going through one of those periods that every kid seems to have. Is he going to be a breakdown penetrator, is he going to be dribbler and a shooter?’’
Romich has been around the game long enough to know how to stay cool, even when things aren’t going his way.
He admits he gets a little too fancy at times - trying to sneak no-look passes or squeeze the ball past three defenders. But he has been calm while trying to sort it all out.
His brother, Ryan, played under Woods before graduating last year, and he’s making his mark in upstate New York at Le Moyne College, averaging 16.7 minutes per game as a freshman (and shooting a team-high 61.4 percent from the floor). Kyle watched Ryan constantly deal with mental pressure as well as double- and triple-coverage from opposing defenses in high school.
“I learned how to keep my composure from him,’’ said Kyle. “You just have to let them say what they want to say, and you can’t let them get in your head, that’s what Ryan always told me.’’
And as hard as Woods might be on Romich during practice, he knows how special his point guard is, and how the Crusaders’ chances this season lie in his hands.
“He’s our glue. I keep telling people, he’s going to be just fine. This team is going to figure it out.’’
Farley inspires with defense
Needham High senior forward Kevin Farley has one of the oddest stat lines of the season: He’s taken nine charges through the Rockets’ 10-3 start.
“That kind of defense is contagious,’’ said coach Paul Liner. “When he’s laying his body out on the line, every kid feeds off that.’’
Liner credits Farley, along with fellow senior cocaptains Shy Davis (team-leading 16.8 points per game) and Zach Nussbaum, for the team’s success this season, but said consistent defense will be the key down the stretch.
Needham has allowed just 46.8 points per game.