The Richmond boys basketball team was rolling the dice. The Bobcats, a school of only 144 students, were nonetheless trying their hand in the Mountain Valley Conference and taking on a schedule with schools up to nearly three times their size.

Coach Phil Houdlette knew Richmond lost the depth and numbers battle every time out. But he also knew that in senior swingman Zach Small, the Bobcats always had the matchup’s best player.

“I think he was the ultimate competitor. I think he made his teammates better by being that way,” Houdlette said. “I think he gave them a sense of security that we could participate in the league, play in the league and be competitive in the league.”

Faced with the pressure nearly every night of putting the Richmond offense on his back, Small thrived. He averaged 31.6 points per game en route to finishing his career with a program-record 1,473 points, and guided the MVC newcomers to the Class C South semifinals. For his performance, Small is the Kennebec Journal Boys Basketball Player of the Year. Cony’s Jordan Roddy, who averaged 16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game during an excellent season of his own, was also considered.

“He’s matured a lot, especially the last couple of years,” Houdlette said. “Who wouldn’t want to have him? You don’t want to coach against him.”

Few players matched the scoring prowess of Small, who seemed to get better the more Richmond leaned on him.

“I was given the green light a lot throughout the season, and a lot of teammates and coaches don’t really give a player that green light,” said Small, who also averaged 3.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game and was named MVC Player of the Year. “There were a couple of games where I’d score 12, 15, maybe lower 20s, but there were some games where I had to step up and score 30, and a couple of times I scored almost 40. It just comes down to what you needed me to do.”

More often than not, that meant putting the ball in the basket. Richmond had good players in Nate Kendrick, Danny Stewart and Calob Densmore, but few true scoring options outside of Small and Matt Rines (18.6 points per game).

“I didn’t want it to be a one-man show. … But he made baskets,” Houdlette said. “We get him the ball, set screens for him, get him open, he’s going to reward you by scoring.”

The opposing defenses knew this. After getting more open looks and catch-and-shoot opportunities last year, Small ran into more diamond-and-one defenses geared to stop him, or triangle-and-two schemes designed to combat him and Rines.

Those open looks dried up. So Small took to creating the chances himself, often by lowering his shoulder, driving toward the basket and using his body control to finish around the rim.

“It wasn’t necessarily being in a zone where I was making every shot,” he said. “It was more about getting in that intensity mindset, like I knew I was going to attack the rim, attack the rim, attack the rim. And I was just trying to be relentless.”

The head-turning outputs came one after another. Thirty points here. Then 32 there. Then 29, or 37, or 34. In a game against Telstar, Houdlette was shocked when he counted up the points and had 48 for Small.

Small was surprised, too.

“It was like every other game,” he said. “I had no idea I scored 48 points. … It was through the flow of the game.”

Small’s greatest feat, however, came in his final game. Richmond went up against the eventual C South champions in Hall-Dale and found itself with a chance at the upset, down only 30-27 at halftime.

Sensing the opportunity, Small went off. He scored eight points during the third quarter, then scored all 18 of his team’s points in the fourth, the last three coming on an off-balance shot from beyond the arc in the final seconds to force overtime.

“He’s not going to back down from the challenge. He’s not going to,” Houdlette said. “I think he’s just such a complete player. He can take it to the basket, he can shoot the three, he can defend.”

“I wanted to make sure, if this was going to be my last game, I was just going to give it everything I had to put my team in position to win that game,” he said. “I’m a very competitive person, no matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing pickup in practice, I hate to lose.”

It shows. Small is a fiery, expressive competitor, and sometimes it boils over, with both Houdlette and Small acknowledging there were moments he got on a teammate’s case after a mental or physical mistake.

“He can get on his teammates a little bit,” Houdlette said. “But if he did, he breaks them down but he immediately builds them back up. … I think he’s matured immensely the last couple of years.”

“Sometimes things get competitive and tempers flare, but we always came back together and we’re all just friends with each other,” Small added. “Every night, my teammates had the trust in me to do the things that I was able to do, and without that and without my coaches, I wouldn’t have been able to compete like I did.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM