Before Zach Swanson became one of the most prolific scorers Inter-Lakes High School has ever seen, he was cut from his middle school basketball team.
Admittedly, Swanson wasn’t as big or skilled back then. But from a demotion in junior high to now, where the senior just recently wrapped up his career with the Lakers tied for the all-time program lead in scoring, it’s been nothing but a positive ascension for one of the best true post players in Division III.
“This is a kid that got cut off the ‘A’ team in middle school,” Inter-Lakes basketball Coach Mike Rathgeber said. “As a freshman, about one third into the season, we saw that if you get this kid the ball close in, he’s money. ... We kind of knew right away and from that point forward he just worked on his game and every year got better and better and better.”
All of Swanson’s hard work collectively came to a head this past season. He reached a pair of milestones most high school kids never even come close to and became the centerpiece for an Inter-Lakes team that went a combined 37-9 over the last two years. And although Swanson’s final year was cut short in the tournament, the season left behind some special moments he won’t soon forget.Chasing 1,000
Rathgeber refers to Swanson as the “poster boy” for Inter-Lakes basketball.
“We have a tendency to complicate the simple and if you can make your free throws and make your layups at a good percentage, which he did, if you can do that for a career, you’ll have a great career and Zach proved it,” Rathgeber said. “Everybody wants to shoot NBA 3s. Everybody wants to do this and the other thing, but at the end of the day, it’s about free throws and layups. It’s what I teach, it’s what I preach, and now Zach is my poster boy for it.”
If you watch Swanson on the court for five minutes, his ability to score down on the low block and bully his way through double- and triple-teams stands out immediately. That wasn’t always the case.
“I think I developed it over the years,” Swanson said of his knack for scoring inside. “I’ve been playing AAU basketball for three years now and those are like big, strong kids so I get used to the contact and not getting as many calls.”
A successful freshman season translated into a bigger role during his sophomore campaign and, playing alongside fellow 1,000-point scorer Dillon Dow, Swanson’s steady rise continued. He averaged about 18 points per game and 10 rebounds his junior season, becoming more and more the focal point of the offense.
“It was definitely an adjustment because going into my junior year, teams would be game planning me – throwing doubles and triple (teams) and stuff at me. It was definitely a big-time adjustment from being one of the guys to the main guy in the scoring role,” Swanson said.
Swanson made the adjustment look like a cakewalk. He grew into his frame and bulked up so that he could merely overpower any defensive schemes opponents had in store.
“He got really strong and then the double-teams really stopped mattering because he would score anyway,” Rathgeber said. “He’s not selfish, but he didn’t want any part of kicking it out. He wanted to take the challenge on.”
And so he did.
Swanson entered his senior season 211 points shy of 1,000 and with a more advanced skill set down low than ever before. Playing alongside his brother, Eli, and sharpshooter Ryan Kelly, Swanson averaged 22.9 points per game (third best in Division III), 11.8 rebounds, two assists and two steals on 62 percent shooting from the floor.
In a Jan. 3 blowout win against Somersworth, the chase for 1,000 came to an end. Parked in his usual spot down on the block, Swanson flipped up a shot from inside in the third quarter and swished it home to become the ninth 1,000-point scorer in Inter-Lakes history.
“That was a cool experience playing with Eli,” Swanson said. “He definitely has a lot of potential and he played really well this year. It was just sort of a cool feeling being out there with him when I scored my 1,000th point.”An all-time record
In a strange way, Swanson has Somersworth’s Bryton Early to thank for tying the program’s scoring record.
In a heated quarterfinal matchup against the Hilltoppers on March 4, Swanson scored 27 points to bring him even with Mike Roy for the all-time scoring mark with 1,335 points. The only problem? Swanson was two points short with time quickly running out in the fourth quarter.
“The craziest part of that is he would have missed it, except Bryton Early got a technical and Zach is my statistical best free-throw shooter,” Rathgeber said. “So I put him to the line all the time on technicals. I put him to the line on Early’s technical and he dropped down those two free throws and that’s what did it. He never scored after that.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Swanson. The final whistle signaled the last high school basketball game of his career, but in those same few seconds as he walked off the court, Swanson also became a Lakers legend.
“It was definitely not the outcome we would of wanted, losing in the quarterfinals,” Swanson said. “But it was definitely an honor, especially being tied with Mike Roy, who was an absolute phenomenal player. It’s a complete team effort because without other kids stepping up on different nights hitting shots and without Rathgeber calling plays for me, that doesn’t happen.”A fresh start
Swanson won’t be back for the Lakers next season. In fact, he won’t even be playing basketball.
As good of a post player as he is on the hardwood, Swanson may be an even better tight end, and Plymouth State University was the perfect choice for him.
“I committed not too long ago,” Swanson said. “They have a need at my position ... so it turned out to be a good fit.”
After helping lead the Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough football team to back-to-back state championship game appearances, Swanson will join a Panthers program that finished 6-4 last season and will hope to add to an offense that averaged 236 yards per game.
But that doesn’t mean the Swanson name is leaving Inter-Lakes anytime soon. Eli hopes to continue to pick up where Zach left off for the Lakers boys’ basketball team.
“I just want to really keep it up and keep winning,” said Eli Swanson, who emerged as a scoring threat for Inter-Lakes this season. “We’ve had a couple good years so I just want to keep the winning going and hopefully I’ll play well, too.”
If he’s anything like his brother, Rathgeber may have a new poster boy for the Lakers.
(Jay McAree can be reached at 369-3371, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JayMcAree.)