By Jim Irish
Cedar Creek boys top three players suffered serious injuries last season, but basketball coach Valentino Maxwell is not planning to cover them in bubble wrap this season.
Kenji Franklin, a hairline fracture of the ankle; Robert Conrad, a dislocated elbow; and Micah McDonald, a meniscus tear in the knee; missed a combined total of 36 games.
As a result, the Eagles (17-17 overall,, 3-11 in District 23-5A) went from a playoff contender to a sixth-place finish in district.
Cedar Creek blazed to a 14-1 record at the start of the season and during that stretch won the Austin ISD tournament and its own tournament, the first two in school history. But Franklin was injured soon after, and the wheels fell off the vehicle.
"It's a concern, but it's something that you can't think about."
-- Cedar Creek coach Valentino Maxwell speaking about injuries
Maxwell said he refuses to worry about the possibility of injuries.
“It’s a concern, but it’s something that you can’t think about,” he said. “It’s part of the game. You just hope they’ll continue to play hard. It’s obviously been frustrating the past two years. We should have been in the playoffs. You can’t live in the past.”
Conrad has all the skills at point guard
Conrad, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard, went down in the first district game last season. Before his injury, he had been averaging almost 21 points a game along with 3.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.7 steals a game.
In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Conrad was named first-team all-district. Despite playing only one-half of one district game last season, he was named to the honorable mention team.
A gym rat who is always striving to improve, Conrad played AAU summer basketball for CTX Knights in Austin. During Cedar Creek’s fall league, Conrad was on the floor six or seven times in one game, Maxwell said. Conrad’s body is often perpendicular to the ground on drives to the basket.
“I had to have a conversation with him,” Maxwell said. “We have to find ways to stay on our feet. It’s part of (Conrad’s) DNA to be aggressive and challenge guys at the basket, (but) it’s scary."
Division I colleges are recruiting 6-6 junior Franklin
Franklin, a junior whom Maxwell says is now 6-6, suffered a dislocated toe during district in his freshman season, eliminating any hope of advancing to the playoffs.
Franklin was the first player injured last season, and the Eagles were without his 18 points, almost 10 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks a game. When he returned six weeks later, he had lost his conditioning. Still, Franklin earned first-team all-district honors.
“That’s a hard position to be in,” Maxwell said. “I thought he did really well for his circumstances.”
Franklin, who is able to play any position on the floor, is currently being recruited by mid-major Division I programs, Maxwell said.
McDonald, a 6-2 senior wing, averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game and was selected to the all-district second team.
Franklin and McDonald both played AAU summer basketball with Stat Pro Elite.
Phineas Koplin, a 6-2 junior shooting guard, is a streaky outside shooter who averaged 8.7 points a game.
Returning role players are 5-9 seniors Gavin Reynolds, Jack Casey, and Kole Masters.
Aiden Paysse, a 5-8 senior, and K’Veahon Houston, a 6-1 senior, arrive from the football team.
Juniors promoted from the junior varsity team are 5-9 Dakota Baker, 5-10 Dillon Dubee, 6-0 Eli Meyers, and 6-0 Braydon Adams.
Leland Washington, a 6-4 senior transfer from Houston, is a very good rebounder and a good defender and shooter, Maxwell said.
“He’s going to be a vital part of our team,” Maxwell said.
Cedar Creek has its deepest team in Maxwell’s six seasons.
“There’ll be more competition for minutes than ever before,” he said. “This is what most successful programs have year in and year out. We’ve always had smaller teams (in numbers) and not a lot of competition. Everyone on our roster has a chance to fight for minutes. Everyone has a chance to help us.”
Cedar Creek will exert more pressure on defense because of its numbers and athleticism.
"... We have two college-level players and a very good supporting cast around them."
“I think this is the most all-around athletic team I’ve had,” Maxwell said. “I want to be more of a full-court pressure team. We have two college-level players and a very good supporting cast around them.”
Much will depend on the health of Franklin, one of the top players in Central Texas. Maxwell said DI college coaches have come to observe Franklin in practice. Opposing teams will likely place double coverage on Franklin.
“(KJ) is a guard,” Maxwell said. “I know he’s tall, but he’s being recruited as a hybrid guard.
“I know people want to see him with his back to the basket. His back will be to the basket at times. (But) he’s really good with the ball in his hands. He has a great (three-point) shot. He can pass the ball very well. I’m looking for a really big year out of him.”
Cedar Creek in the mix for District 13-5A title
Cedar Creek opens the season with a tough test on the road against Class 6A Manor on Friday. This season, the Eagles will compete in three tournaments: Austin, Cedar Creek, and Corpus Christi at Christmas.
Connally, the defending District 23-5A champion, returns three starters who scored in double figures, including 6-7 Mekhai Bryant, whom Maxwell calls “crazy athletic.”
If his squad remains healthy, Maxwell likes his chances in the race for the district title.
“I think it’s us, but I’m being biased,” he said. “We have set very high expectations for ourselves. We want to not only make the playoffs but to win district.”
Jim Irish is a freelance writer in Bastrop, Texas