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Ready or not, the basketball season is here for the St. Helena boys basketball team.

The Saints played their first game last Tuesday, a 65-44 win over St. Vincent. But on Thursday they’ll enter a stretch of seven games over the next ten days, starting with the Sutter Home Invitational Tournament running Nov. 29 – Dec. 1 at St. Helena High School.

It’ll be a trial by fire of sorts for a young Saints team with a first-year head coach, who only just this week put together a complete roster for the first time since practices began back on Oct. 29.

Tuesday was the first practice that new head coach Jim Gamble actually had his entire team. The delay to the football playoffs forced a number of players to miss tryouts and the first three weeks of practices. The Saints will practice again on Wednesday before they open the Sutter against John Swett. That game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on Thursday.

“It’s been an interesting first month on the job,” Gamble said before practice on Tuesday. “The first week we were missing five kids that were in the drama production, four kids on the football team and then we had about a week of practices in the smoke where we couldn’t do any cardiovascular work and now we have the football players that have come out and joined the squad. So now it’s a matter of getting them up to speed really fast.”

After the Sutter wraps up on Saturday, St. Helena will play at Winters on Dec. 4 before heading into another weekend tournament in Cloverdale from Dec. 6-8. St. Helena will then have nearly three weeks before its next game, a third winter tournament, this one in Fort Bragg from Dec. 27-29. Four days later, league play begins.

“League starts in a month, so we don’t have the luxury of very much time, and we have finals week in the middle of all that so we’ll have limited practices that week,” Gamble said. “So the kids have to get up to speed quickly. Fortunately, most of these kids who played football also played summer league basketball, so they’re not starting from scratch.”

The Saints varsity returns four players from last year’s team that went 4-10 in the North Central League I and 11-15 overall.

“That was a big disappointment for everyone,” Gamble said. “We want to put that in the rearview mirror and look forward.”

League play did not the treat the Saints kindly last year and figures to be tough once again this year.

“The entire league is really strong,” Gamble said. “There are a lot of really big, strong, tough basketball teams in our league. Last year, we didn’t win a single game against the Lake County schools. … It’s going to be tough league. I think the usual teams will be competing for the title; Kelseyville, Clear Lake, Cloverdale, Middletown have got the teams to beat.”

“Big,” “strong,” and “tough” aren’t words that Gamble used to explain his team this year. The Saints don’t have a lot of size and probably won’t beat up many opponents this year. But they make up for their deficiencies in size with attitude, heart and speed.

“We are very small in terms of height and muscle, so we have to really focus on our strength and improve our weaknesses,” Gamble said. “We really have to focus on being a great rebounding team, a defensive team and just be super aggressive on offense and push the ball.”

Even his first year at the head of varsity program, Gamble is no stranger to coaching, or playing, basketball. He starred for the Saints in the early 1980s when St. Helena won two CIF North Coast Section titles.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also been a lot of work,” he said, “but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s just great to have the opportunity to give back to a community that gave so much to me.”

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Sports Reporter