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Connor Gross has grown up around the game of basketball. To be honest, it'd be really hard not to with a father who coached at the same high school he currently attends.
Gross' dad, Rich, headed the Bement basketball team in the early '90s, coaching for seven seasons and guiding the Bulldogs to a regional championship in 1993 before handing the reins to current coach Kraig Rogers midway through his eighth season.
It comes as no surprise then that Gross' first word was a short and sweet, four-letter expression: “ball”. Gross doesn't remember that story from his early childhood, but basketball entered his life at a young age and never left.
“My dad had to start me early,” he said.
An early emphasis on fundamentals from his father and a constant drive to improve helped Gross make the varsity team as a freshman and is the propelling factor in his current record-setting play.
Gross scored 25 points and dished out four assists in a 73-49 win against Martinsville inside Walsh Gym on Friday night. The Bulldogs' sharp-shooter set the school record for three-pointers made in a career just 15 games into his junior season after already eclipsing the 1,000-point milestone earlier in the year.
Gross hit four bombs in the win and stands with 200 treys, three more than previous record-holder Andy Hendrix who graduated in 2003.
“My teammates do a great job of getting me open and they have for three years,” Gross said. “I practice a lot with my dad.”
The six-foot guard isn't the quickest of foot – that title is reserved for point guard Steve Isbell – but Gross has a quick release and a high basketball IQ that helps him find his spots on the floor where he can be successful, whether that's coming off screens or breaking down taller defenders off the dribble.
An amazing work ethic doesn't hurt, either.
“In the summer I try to get up 500 shots a day; just try to make myself better,” Gross said.
So the school leader for three-pointers has the ultimate green light, right? Think again.
“He likes to think he does, but not really,” Rogers said after Bement's sixth win and second in the Little Okaw Valley. “I wouldn't say he has the ultimate green light, but he certainly knows he has some freedom to shoot.
“It's kind of a special relationship we have. I mean, we all know he's going to score his points and get his shots. In his mind he's such a competitor. He wants to score so badly, not so he can see the numbers in his stat column, but because he wants our team to win so badly. He wants to put it all on his shoulders and do it all sometimes.”
That mindset can often lead to bad shot selection, but Rogers has been impressed with his captain's decision-making this year.
“One thing we have to clean up is when he's trying to penetrate and drawing the defense, try to kick it out a little more so he can make other players better,” Rogers said. “He's done a good job of that so far.”
Gross hit 9 of 13 shots, including 4 of 6 from behind the arc to pace Bement (6-9, 2-0 LOVC). Seniors C.J. Somers (17 points) and Tyce Rittenhouse (12) also finished in double-figures to help the Bulldogs open an 11-point lead after the first quarter and cruise to a conference win over a Martinsville team that only dressed seven players.
Bement has won four of its last five games after starting the season 2-8. The Bulldogs are finally healthy after an ankle injury to Ethan Morton in a Thanksgiving tournament sidelined the junior starter for several weeks, and Rogers has a full roster to work with after early disciplinary issues.
“We haven't been a full-strength unit until our game against Arcola on Tuesday,” Rogers said. “That's really the biggest thing. We're all back together on the same page.”
And that allows the Bulldogs to put the focus back on their goals for the season, including making a run at an LOVC title.
“We've been working hard in practice, that's the No. 1 thing,” Gross said. “We set high goals and if we want to reach those we're going to have to work hard, harder than what we have been in the past.”