A.J. Plitzuweit

Vermillion’s A.J. Plitzuweit, 23, goes up for a shot with his left hand around Bon Homme defender Bryce Scieszinski, 12, during a game earlier this season. Plitzuweit is averaging 33.6 points per game this season, including a school-record 52 points in a win over Lennox on Thursday.

Jeremy Hoeck/P&D

Yes, A.J. Plitzuweit scored 52 points on Thursday night.

That actually happened.

What an outside observer — one who wasn’t in Lennox to witness the record-breaking performance — wouldn’t see, though, is the way the Vermillion High School senior scored 52 points.

The unquestioned leader of a new-look squad this season, the 6-foot-2 Plitzuweit is off to an impressive start to the season even in the face of constant double teams and defensive pressure.

“The most impressive thing from our standpoint is the way he’s handled things, knowing he’s going to get the other team’s best defensive effort,” head coach Jay Drake said Friday.

That was the case Thursday night in Lennox, where Plitzuweit scored 41 of his school-record 52 points in the second half of a 72-66 victory — all against a defense that knew where the ball would be going.

“I did it to help our team win,” Plitzuweit said Friday afternoon before practice.

“It was a matter of when I caught fire.”

When exactly did he catch fire?

“Around the middle of the third quarter, I started feeling it,” Plitzuweit said.

There was actually one moment in particular where Drake said he could remember realizing that his senior leader was on the verge of something special.

Vermillion had a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Lennox drilled a three-pointer to get within one. Plitzuweit took the ball down court and calmly made what Drake estimated was a 26-foot three-pointer.

“As a coach, you’re concentrating on winning, but yet, you could see it in the Lennox kids’ eyes,” Drake said. “It was kind of, ‘What else can we do’ look.”

That’s a look other teams can relate to, as well.

Through seven games this season, Plitzuweit — an Augustana recruit — is averaging 33.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.9 steals per game.

A first team All-State selection last season (his first after moving to Vermillion from Kentucky), he took the reins as the leader of a Vermillion squad that was short on returning varsity experience — senior Rylan Pratt is out with a knee injury.

That meant Plitzuweit was going to be asked to do more as a senior.

“We’re playing guys that are still new to varsity basketball, so it’s put pressure on him,” Drake said.

What has that meant for Plitzuweit?

“I had to be more of a leader and more of a communicator,” he said. “Last year we had Cooper Williams, and he and I shared that role.

“I had to step up now and show the guys the way.”

A season ago, a senior-laden Tanagers squad had Williams (a second team all-state point guard), which allowed Plitzuweit to play away from the ball.

That’s not the case this season, Drake said. No, as a senior, Plitzuweit is the one bringing the ball up the floor.

“It’s harder when he’s bringing it up, because teams have thrown another guy at him and tried to trap him,” Drake said. “But he’s so good with the basketball, and he can split guys or shot fake or ball fake them to get a shot.”

And when he’s gotten his shots (21 a game), Plitzuweit has made 52 percent of them — he’s shooting 37 percent on three-pointers and 89 percent at the free throw line.

So, no, he’s not struggling to get shots.

“I try to, definitely,” Plitzuweit said.

“Sometimes it’s hard, but my teammates do a good job getting me the ball where I have an opportunity to do something with it.”

Still, it was understandable that Plitzuweit and his new varsity teammates would need time to develop a rhythm.

And after a season-opening 51-50 loss at Bon Homme, the Vermillion coaches talked with Plitzuweit — who was held to 13 points and fouled out in the opener — about what his role was going to have to be.

“He always wants to make a basketball play and his instinct is to find guys, but we’ve told him to take those shots; even the tough ones,” Drake said.

That first game was an eye-opener for Plitzuweit, he said.

“If we were going to win this season, I knew I was going to have do a little bit more,” he said.

And since, he’s scored 37, 30, 37, 28, 38 and 52 points.

The 52-point performance Thursday was the latest in a list of impressive games for Plitzuweit in his season and a half at Vermillion High School. He and his family — parents Dawn and Jay, and sister Lexi — moved to South Dakota from Kentucky, where his mother had been the head women’s basketball coach at Northern Kentucky University.

“It was definitely an awkward and different situation to get thrown into, but it’s definitely gone well,” A.J. said.

For as long as he can remember, A.J. has been spending time in gyms.

“When I was growing up, it was basketball, basketball, basketball; all the time,” he said.

His father has 18 years of experience as a high school basketball coach and his mother is now the head coach at the University of South Dakota.

And you can tell that A.J. is the product of two coaches, Drake said.

“His basketball IQ is unbelievable and his work ethic is incredible,” Drake said. “It’s what he’s always done; it’s part of his life.

“And from a practice standpoint, it’s great for our younger kids to see how he works.”

It’s not as though Plitzuweit is joined in the starting lineup this season by freshman; no, the Tanagers (4-3) also start seniors Riley Johnson and Carter Larson, and juniors Reece Peters and Josh Prescott.

“We’re still trying to figure out our roles, but we’re definitely starting to click a little bit,” Plitzuweit said.

Vermillion plays Murray County Central (Minnesota) today (Saturday) at 1:30 p.m. in Garretson and returns to South Dakota competition next Tuesday at home against Elk Point-Jefferson.

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