Soutiri Sapnas had his own little place, like all budding basketball stars have, that special private area where he could cultivate his game, hone his skills, hit the winning shot in imaginary games with the clock counting down. But Sapnas' spot came with a caveat: Missing meant running.
Each time he'd heave the ball at the basket and miss, the ball would roll down an embankment behind the court and "Sut," as he's called by family, friends and teammates, would have to chase after it. Sapnas learned not to miss. At 12, he had developed an arcing, accurate shot to go along with his creative moves near the basket.
That balanced game has been unwrapped at Marple Newtown High School, where the 6-1 junior guard is among the leading scorers in the area, averaging 26.9 points through 10 games this season. Sapnas is on a pace to break the school's all-time career scoring mark of 1,085, set by Frank Zanin, a 1995 Marple Newtown graduate who's currently an assistant coach with the 76ers. Zanin's 1995 team was also the last Marple Newtown team with a winning record (23-7).
Sapnas is adjusting to his new role at point guard, a position he's never played before. He's constantly double-teamed, and sees his share of junk defenses designed to stop him. But he's been held under 20 points only twice this season, while shooting slightly under 50 percent.
He's quick, athletic, elusive, and highly competitive. Even when it came to his own individual games when he'd shoot for hours at a court behind a local Springfield shopping center.
"I can't remember the name of the park, but I do remember that if you missed, the ball would roll down this hill and you'd have to chase it," said Sapnas, 16. "I used to take shots and run right over to the hill before the ball got a chance to roll down. You can say it was a kind of a drill, but that's where I worked on my shot. I'd take five shots from one spot and not move until I made five in a row, then I'd move to another spot."
Now, regardless of where he is on the court, he's scoring.
One example earlier this season featured Sapnas going against Strath Haven and its amazing scorer, Calvin Newell. Sapnas dropped a career-best 37 in the 75-69 Tigers' loss on Dec. 9; Newell had 38.
"That game just showed how hungry Sut is," said Eric "Pooh" Evans, who coaches both Newell and Sapnas as part of a local program he runs called Fidonce Player Development. "Soutiri is real good, because he's a great athlete. He hasn't even peaked. There is a lot of room for improvement. Once his ballhandling improves, his game's going to improve that much more. Soutiri has a great work ethic. He's very, very determined to be the best."
That determination used to get in his way at times. He'd pout after losses when he played in local club leagues, often stomping his feet to the car when his parents picked him up. He'd wear that leave-me-alone cringe and angrily fold his arms, not talking to anyone.
"I was bad," said Soutiri, laughing. "My parents would actually laugh at me when I behaved like that. I grew out of that fast."
As he grew out of being frustrated over the double teams he faced as a sophomore last year.
"Sut has matured a lot in a year, because he used to let box-and-ones bother him, which affected the rest of his game," Tigers coach Jerry Doemling said. "The only times he has bad games now is when he stops himself. He occasionally gets in modes where he's too quick for his own good. He can create his own shot anytime he wants. I've been coaching for 12 years and I haven't seen anyone who could finish like him."
Marple Newtown is trying to overcome the season losses of starters Dan Giordano (herniated disc) and Alex Skalski (torn anterior cruciate ligament), making Doemling count on Sapnas even more. Soutiri is getting used to playing point guard, where Doemling put him so opposing teams would find it more difficult defending him coming up the court.
Sapnas is playing at about 80 percent, while recovering from a broken right wrist he suffered in October; he came back a week before the season started. He had to have his wrist taped the first two games, but he played without tape for the first game against Strath Haven.
Sapnas is receiving some college attention, and is a fan of Temple since his parents, Anthony and Regan, are alumni. But he's willing to wait until the summer to determine where he would like to go.
"Sut is an extremely hard worker and the step he made from last year to this year has been amazing," Doemling said. "The level he plays in college is up to him. He can be even better than he is now."
The top seven Delaware County teams playing in Delco leagues
1. Penn Wood (7-0)
2. Chester (6-1)
3. Glen Mills (5-2)
4. Penncrest (8-0)
5. Upper Darby (7-2)
6. Marple Newtown (6-4)
7. Radnor (5-3)
(Records through Monday)