Gross lets his game do the talking

BEMENT — Back in the day, Rich Gross was a 2,000-point career scorer in basketball for Sheldon High School.

Three decades later, some 60 miles to the southwest, the family tradition continues.

Connor Gross — who was introduced to the sport as a youngster by his father, Rich — led the area in scoring as a sophomore at Bement and ranks No. 1 again as a junior.

Gross scored 19 points Friday as the Bulldogs — whose school has an enrollment of 112 students — suffered a heartbreaking 69-63 double-overtime loss to Okaw Valley.

Connor Gross not only has a golden shooting touch but also a strong grasp of the game.

“He has really good footwork that allows him to shoot quickly,” Bement coach Kraig Rogers said, “and he has a great understanding for reading screens and moving accordingly to get his shot.”

His shot has been refined because of the countless attempts.

“Connor is a tireless worker, not only at basketball but also at baseball,” Rogers said. “Many nights, he stays after practice and gets extra shots in.”

While he has become a polished player — his career scoring average is 17.4 points per game and he is on pace to eclipse the 2,000-point mark as a senior — out of uniform, he wouldn’t be the first player chosen for a pickup game by people who didn’t know him.

“Looking at him in street clothes, he doesn’t look like he should be able to score like he does,” Rogers said. “I think his dad has worked with him a great deal since he was little. He has taught him the fundamentals of shooting, and it has paid off.”

Dad also passed along a piece of advice that is standard procedure for shooters.

“Since I was little, he said, ‘Get the next one. Don’t reflect on the last one,’ ” Connor Gross said.

The advice was helpful Friday when he started 1 for 6 from the field. Gross kept firing, and in the final 31/2 minutes of the second quarter, he drilled three three-pointers to pull the Bulldogs within three points at halftime.

In the past decade, no athlete has led the area in scoring in consecutive seasons. Connor Gross understands why.

“It’s a lot harder this year to get open,” he said. “Every team has a hand on my jersey. My teammates have done a good job of getting involved.”

That was critical in the fourth quarter, when Bement rallied from an eight-point deficit in the last 7:20 to force overtime. Shane Hall and Steve Isbell joined Gross in draining three-pointers during the comeback.

Tyce Rittenhouse led Bement with 22 points and 13 rebounds.

Part of Gross’ progress is in recognizing when to shoot and when not to shoot.

“He has gotten good at knowing what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot,” Rogers said. “He’s down to about one (bad shot) per game.”

Rich Gross’ high school is no longer in existence. It is incorporated into the Milford district.

The writing is on the wall at Bement. The school has formed a co-op with neighboring Cerro Gordo for all sports except for boys’ basketball, golf and volleyball.

Gross is one of five juniors playing basketball for the Bulldogs (8-16). When Little Okaw Valley Conference coaches were polled in December, he was the player chosen first as the one they would want “to take a final shot” to win a game.

Gross is tied for sixth in the area in three-pointers made and is among the top five in free throw accuracy, sinking more than 81 percent of his attempts.

The 6-foot-1 sharpshooter may be in one of the final graduating classes to play four full years of basketball at the Piatt County school.

He is about 250 points from passing Andy Hendrix for Bement’s career scoring mark.

“We will have basketball next year, but I have been told the following year we could be co-oping with Cerro Gordo for basketball,” Rogers said.

Isbell and Hall are among the Bulldogs’ five current juniors, a nucleus that bodes well for the 2013-14 season. Ethan Morton, who hauled down 10 rebounds against Okaw Valley, is also a junior of prominence.

As for Connor Gross’ future, Rogers has no doubt he could play basketball for a small-college or junior college program, “but his interest is in baseball,” Rogers said.

The time that Gross devotes to basketball is surpassed by the commitment he makes to baseball.

“Last season after practice, he would jump in the car with his dad and they would drive to Atlanta (near Bloomington) for hitting instruction,” Rogers said.

As a sophomore, Connor Gross was an All-Area special mention selection as a pitcher in baseball, matching the recognition he received during his second high school basketball season.

For now, Gross said his favorite sport remains “the one in season.” Though his summer baseball schedule takes him across the country — and seldom to gymnasiums to shoot basketballs — he wants to keep his college options open.

“It depends on whatever happens,” he said.
 

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