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THE GRIND: Pinecrest Academy's Crone steps up in first varsity season
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Pinecrest Academy sophomore John Crone made a splash in varsity debut, scoring 26 points in the Paladins' season-opener. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard is averaging 8.7 points a game. - photo by Micah Green

When John Crone dialed his ailing grandfather Monday night, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

Bob Crone, in and out of intensive care after a stroke, answered the phone some 615 miles south of Cumming in Fort Myers, Fla., and spoke clearly—prayers answered.

Distance hasn’t prevented John, a sophomore shooting guard at Pinecrest Academy, from offering up each game of his first varsity basketball season to a man he sees only for several weeks each summer.

"It’s actually been crazy for me," Crone said. "The team has been praying for him and I think that’s really helped him; he’s out of ICU right now and in physical therapy…He was really happy that the team has been supporting him."

In terms of beginnings, Crone’s introduction was auspicious: the 6-foot-3 guard scored 26 points in the Paladins’ season-opening loss to Providence Christian. Usual starters Ryan McCarthy, Sean Flannigan and Nick Palmer were still with the state playoff-bound Pinecrest football team that day. Crone picked up the scoring slack, and then some.

Scoring, for the sharp-shooting Crone (37 percent from 3-point range), has never been an issue, not on junior varsity as a freshman and not this year (8.7 points per game).

On each of the dark blue lockers in the Pinecrest boys’ dressing room is a strip of white athletic tape. McCarthy, a sophomore forward, wrote nicknames, Twitter handles, or whatever else he felt apt on each piece; Crone’s locker reads ‘Defense.’

Tongue-in-cheek, Crone admits: that was the area of his game needing the most improvement. He could get away with middling defense in the past, but it wasn’t going to be sufficient against, say, Florida State-bound guard Malik Beasley of St. Francis, who Crone was tasked with guarding.

In that Dec. 12 matchup with the defending Class A Private state champions, Flannigan’s half-court heave at the halftime buzzer pulled Pinecrest within 10 points. Elation turned to agony in the third quarter, when Flannigan, Pinecrest’s third-leading scorer at the time, went down with a torn ACL and MCL and was lost for the season.

"Nick, Ryan and I knew we had to step up with him gone," Crone said. "I felt obligated to score more points when he went down. All of this is preparing us for the next few seasons. Sean is going to be a big part of our team the next two years, but now some of the other young guys get to develop more."

Of the Paladins’ 12 losses this season, four have been by two points or fewer. For a young team—Palmer, Pinecrest’s leading scorer, is the only senior contributor for Jay Lynch’s team – the next step, Crone said, is learning how to win those one-possession games.

"I felt like those were all games we could’ve won, but lapses killed us," Crone said. "I feel like we can win our last six games this year."

Monday night was a good start: Pinecrest held region rival Kings Ridge to 45 points and won by five.

"We’re building for the next several years," Crone said. "Every single practice and every game, we’re getting better."