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Even with the first game of the preseason still months away, the St. Helena High boys basketball program is hard at work preparing with extra offseason reps on the local prep summer league circuit at Napa Valley College.

A little more than three weeks into the summer schedule, the Saints have compiled a respectable 2-2 record playing mostly against tougher competition and larger schools. Their most recent result came Tuesday in a 63-43 loss to American Canyon, which finished second in the Vine Valley Athletic League last season.

But with this being summer league, the final score is hardly of any concern.

St. Helena head coach Jim Gamble, who will enter his second year at the helm this upcoming season, simply wants to see two things out of his squad right now.

“Number one: I want to see them play hard,” he said. “Number two: I want them to have fun, because summer basketball is about having fun.

“It’s a lot more relaxed. The games are competitive – they get after it – but I want to make sure everyone is playing a lot, getting some minutes and having a good time and getting excited about next season.”

Against the Wolves on Tuesday, every Saint saw the floor, with many getting their first taste of varsity basketball. It was also the first time St. Helena had more than 10 players suit up. Summer vacations and other obligations have made the summer league roster a revolving door of players. Gamble said they’ve mostly had six or seven players out for most of the summer and that Tuesday’s turnout was “by far” the most kids they had come out.

“For four kids, today was their first game and they’ve had one practice under their belt,” he said. “There’s not a lot of chemistry and fluidity out there. It’s frustrating on one hand, but on the other hand it’s great that the kids are out there playing, working on their games and trying to improve for next year.”

And even with a lack of continuity, which tends to be common over summer, the Saints have had their fair share of success.

In their summer league opener, they vanquished Justin-Siena 57-45 and then held tough in narrow loss to Rodriguez of Fairfield, a school with an enrollment nearly four times that of St. Helena. The Saints also beat Archbishop Hanna for their second win of the summer, before falling to American Canyon on Tuesday.

While the games tend to be on the sloppy side and scoring can be at a premium, the offseason run has shown the Saints where they need to grow. They may have only lost two players to graduation from last year’s team, which went 8-4 in the North Central League I and 13-13 overall, but they were key pieces. With both Nick Jeworowski, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and Christian Iano, a veteran guard who was a solid defender and shooter, now gone, the Saints will have some major holes to fill come November.

But Gamble has faith that the team he’s witnessed so far in the summer will eventually give way to a fierce competitor that could make some noise in the league.

“This group of kids has been playing together for a long time,” he said. “They know how to play together.”

Playing against the stiffer competition that summer league at Napa Valley College provides will only help the Saints grow towards that goal.

“The defensive level of these teams is just on another level,” said incoming senior Collin Darrall. “I think when you’re playing Bethel and (American Canyon), they really know how to slide their feet. So you’ve really got to focus on ball control. That’s like the biggest thing, but it definitely helps once you get into the season.”

Gamble, who also ran the Saints’ summer program last year, agreed.

“American Canyon, they play a lot faster than a lot of the other teams that we play in the regular season, so it’s good to play at a speed that we’re not comfortable with,” he said. “Our guys see that they need to pick up their game and play faster and it’s going to help them in the long run.”

Added Darrall: “It definitely opens your eyes when three of these guys are doing windmills,” he said, motioning over to the Vintage-Bethel game going on in the background.

The good news for the Saints is that they plenty of time to apply what they glean from the summer towards their season. The official start date for the 2019-20 basketball season is Nov. 4, which is two weeks before the Saints have their first preseason game.

Moving forward, the Saints will close out their summer league games next Thursday but will continue trying to improve. Many of the players are participating in the high school’s speed and strength training program, also known as SST. Soon enough, August and the start of school will roll around, which means open gyms will commence again, more opportunities for players to get better.

The Saints are working hard this summer, but they’re nowhere finished working yet.

“I think we’re going to surprise some people this coming season,” Darrall said. “I don’t think people are just going to walk all over us. I think we can put up a pretty good fight.”

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.