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Varsity veterans provide boost for Collinsville

January 13, 2012
By Chris Kusnerick of Collinsville High School

One look at the Southwestern Conference standings is all it takes to show how important a year of experience has been for the Collinsville boys basketball team.

The Kahoks have six varsity regulars back from a 2010-11 squad that went 15-13 overall and 6-8 in the Southwestern Conference. This season, Collinsville is 14-2 and 6-0 heading into Friday's home game against Belleville West.

The varsity veterans include senior guard Jaris Wellmaker and junior guard Jason Kusnerick, who both start, and senior forward/center Caleb Johnson, who comes off the bench.

"Wellmaker really works hard -- his competitive instinct is just incredible," Collinsville coach Darin Lee said. "He's improved as a true point guard and at distributing the ball. Defensively, he's always been able to get his hands on the ball, but his ability to run the offense has been one of the keys for us this year.

"Kusnerick is a good passer and his outside shooting has been able to stretch the defense when teams put a zone on us. He's worked hard in the weight room and he's much stronger than he was last year.

"Johnson has done a nice job and he's stepped in and started for us when we needed him to. He would start for many teams, but he has a great attitude about his role. Against Belleville East (a 56-55 win last Friday), he got some big rebounds and putback baskets. He's one of our best leapers."

The players credit the Kahoks' improvement to a combination of talent, chemistry and effort.

"We're playing more physical defense and moving the ball a lot, so we're getting teams tired," Wellmaker said.

A 69-53 win over O'Fallon on Dec. 9 provided a big confidence boost for the Kahoks.

"They've been in the top two or three in the conference the last few years, so it was a good win for us to show that we can play with the big dogs," Kusnerick said.

This is the third varsity season for Wellmaker, who is averaging 8.7 points and 4.5 rebounds. At 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, he usually goes up against bigger players.

"I've got a good vertical jump and I play hard," Wellmaker said. "I'm scoring a lot more this year and getting a lot more assists, passing the ball to my teammates."

A three-sport athlete, Wellmaker also plays football and runs track.

"Football is my No. 1 sport and that's what I want to play in college," Wellmaker said. "I'm just starting to look at schools."

Kusnerick, son of Collinsville athletic director and former boys basketball coach Chris Kusnerick, was the starting goalie for the soccer team in the fall.

"Basketball is different because I have to run. I don't do too much running in soccer except for short bursts," said Kusnerick, who is averaging 7.7 points. "My legs got a little tired at first, but I'm getting back in the flow and playing well.

"Sometimes I'm a scorer and sometimes I'm a passer. I'm just trying to do whatever will get us wins."

Kusnerick hopes to play either basketball or soccer in college.

"Right now I've got a few looks for both sports and I'm weighing my options," Kusnerick said. "Hopefully I'll have a good senior year in both."

Johnson, who is averaging 3.3 points and 3.6 rebounds, also came off the bench as a junior, scoring 45 points in 21 games.

"This year I'm just buying into what (Lee) wants -- if he needs rebounds or if he just needs energy, that's what I'm going to give him," Johnson said. "I'm not really worried about my personal stats.

"We've been playing together since seventh or eighth grade, and we always talked about our senior year. We'll do whatever it takes to get to the state tournament."

Johnson is also on the track team, but would like to play basketball on the collegiate level.

"I'd be content with going to college and sticking with academics all the way," said Johnson, who competes in the open 400 and the 1,600 relay. "I've had some looks from junior colleges, but wherever I go, I'll probably try to walk on. I'll take it from there and see if I can get any (scholarship) money from that."

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