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Sam Natti, far left, takes over as Lisbon’s coach this season after Les Poore’s 23-year stint on the bench. Charlie Lentz/The Courier. (click for larger version)
December 28, 2011
LISBON — The past arrives quickly in high school sports. Lisbon won the Division IV state championship eight short months ago but much of the crew that helped hang a championship banner on the wall in Lisbon Regional's gymnasium have moved on — including coach Les Poore, who wheeled his chalkboard down the hallway after 23 seasons, 305 victories and four state championships. Panthers All-State guard Jake Clement rode off into the sunset as well — taking along his clutch jumper and daring drives to the hoop.

First-year coach Sam Natti doesn't need a history lesson to appreciate Lisbon basketball. He served as Poore's assistant and runs the summer program — he also wore the orange-and-black Panthers uniform back in the day. Natti knows the drill.

"Not only did Les do it forever but he was successful at it," Natti said. "Kids show up. They're going to work. They're very 'team first' guys. And that all starts with Les, he's done it forever and all these guys are products of that."

Despite the tradition there will be no honeymoon for the rookie coach. Natti knows history gets taught down the hall but the only way you make it inside the gymnasium is with victories.

"In this town it doesn't matter if it's your first year or your 20th year — if we go 15-3 this year I'm the smartest coach on Earth," Natti said. "If we win five games then they're going to be looking for somebody else."

Sophomore point guard Chad Knighton returns to run the point for a second-straight season. Senior shooting guard Andrew Knighton is also back and will be a potent outside scoring threat. Junior power forward Mike Heath returns.

"The guys we've got coming back — Mike and Chad obviously played a big role last year in the starting lineup and big time contributors on a championship team — but even for them this year it's a big change because last year they were options four and five and this year they're one and two," Natti said. "So they've gone from not being on the scouting report to being THE scouting report. It will take them a little while to get used to the new role just because they're going to be the focus. But I think they're both competitive kids. They both work hard and they're both pretty grounded so I think they're going to be able to handle the ups and downs of it."

Senior Garrett McGrath has come out for the team this season and will likely be a starter at center. Heath and McGrath are both 6-foot-3, and Andrew Knighton is 6-foot-1 so Lisbon will have some size. Heath will be the first option inside but McGrath's presence won't allow defenders to double team Heath.

"If (Heath) only scores six or eight points a game we're not very good," Natti said. "He's got to be in the 14, 15, 16 (point) range for us to really be competitive. He's improved his game. He's got a good jumper now. He's got a couple more moves that hopefully will work."

Coach Natti was thankful McGrath decided to come out for the team this year for the first time since his freshman season.

"Garrett's been a godsend because he didn't play for a couple years. He's come out this year. He's working real hard. He takes a lot of pride in what he's doing," Natti said. "He's a great athlete. Teams are going to have to pay attention to him. That's going to be the big contribution that Garrett makes, just making it easier (inside) for other guys."

Andrew Knighton should provide some outside scoring at shooting guard.

"(Andrew Knighton) has improved as much as anybody in the area, he really committed himself in the off-season and improved 100 percent from where he was last year," Natti said. "The kid's a shooter. He'll be one of the better shooters in the area. He's working hard. He's taking charge of practices. He's become quite a leader. He's big enough now that he can shoot over people."

Junior wing Derek Roberts returns and should add some grit on defense.

"(Roberts) is going to be our defensive specialist," Natti said.

Also on the team are juniors Cooper Bryer, Justin Quinn, Zach Sweeney, Joe Champagne, Tyler Tetrault and Hyeokjun Kwon. The freshmen include Jesse Jesseman, Brice Fontaine, Kyle Lyndes and John Brooks. Bryer and should see some minutes inside and Quinn and Sweeney will likely see some run at guard.

"And then after that, who knows? We've got a lot of young guys," Natti said. "Anything could happen with them."

Last season Clement's steady play allowed Lisbon to control the tempo and the Panthers often slowed the ball down when they had a late-game lead. Lisbon also used lots of zone defense. Natti will try to run whenever possible and create more shots on offense. The Panthers will primarily employ a man-to-man defense. The transition from last season's philosophy will be stark — what's past is past — eight months is a lifetime. It happens quickly in high school sports.

"We've got guys who are great athletes and we're going to try and push the tempo and see how it works," Natti said. "Luckily we've got the athletes to do that. We've just got to make it work."

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