When asked about his teams prospects this season, Alan Batiste couldnt contain his smile.
Such are the high hopes the third-year head coach holds for the Durango High School boys basketball team. And those hopes arent completely unfounded, even with the loss of the Demons two leading scorers from last year Joe Keresey and Morgan Miller and their starting point guard.
After all, the Southwestern League as a whole has similar issues:
Gone from defending champion Fruita Monument are Drew Bridges and Alex Padgett, who were first and third in scoring in the SWL last year, respectively.
Montrose loses Nathan Hawley and his 21.5 points per game.
Montezuma-Cortez graduated Jay Rainer, the leagues fourth leading scorer.
Grand Junction Central lost its top scorer, as well Taylor Sanchez.
So everyone in the league has holes to fill, and Batiste said he thinks a strong summer turnout and some players primed for breakouts will plug those holes quickly, beginning with this weekends season-opening Winslow Tournament in Winslow, Ariz.
Its kind of like all those sophomores I started with, theyre all seniors now. ... It looks good, Batiste said. I know the boys are excited. They know what we can accomplish this year and how far we can go.
The leading returning scorer likely will have to pick up plenty of the scoring slack, and he seems ready for the burden. Nick Hamlin has been a fixture in the frontcourt for Batiste since his arrival, and after averaging 7.8 points per game last season, the senior said hes ready to take the next step, which means a bit more production and avoiding his biggest bugaboo foul trouble.
One area the sturdy Hamlin never has missed a beat in is leadership. A vocal presence since joining the varsity roster as a sophomore, his role as leader takes on an even more expansive role as a senior, and hes enjoying every moment.
Every minute of it. Every minute of it, said Hamlin, his eyes lighting up and an ear-to-ear grin etched on his face. I know its not yelling every time, but I love telling these guys what to do and making them better, because its just going to make everybody around them better. And theyre going to see the things I see and correct them just as I do.
Hell be joined in the frontcourt by juniors Trent Andrews, Isiah Mayberry and Dane Mestas, among others. And while DHS might not be the tallest team around, they do have length down low, which should help them jump passing lanes and key the defense, which is at its peak when forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.
Speaking of transition, the guard position will see some turnover, with some familiar names taking on expanded roles. Gone from last years team is starting point guard Easton Garcia, who graduated, as well as defensive stopper Connor Dugan, who opted to focus on his baseball career.
A returning face from two years ago is expected to man the point. Willy Frownfelter played two seasons ago before not returning for his junior season, but hes back as a senior. Ty Elliot returns after averaging 5 points per game off the bench, and after hitting 56 percent from 3 a year ago, he could be a factor from long range.
But the key for all these names is how well they play defensively, as Batiste prides himself on having tough defensive teams and turning turnovers into points.
Thats our strong point is defense. Were not gifted enough with a lot of size and athleticism that were really going to have to rely on our defense to get us possessions, said Hamlin, son of Thomas and Victoria Hamlin.
Last season was a big step up, as Durango advanced to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs after winning just four games in Batistes first season. Now its all about continuing that upward trajectory, particularly with a wide-open SWL throne absent a king. Hit those marks, and Batistes preseason smile will pale in comparison to the size of the one hell be sporting come February and March.
We made a big step from winning four games the year I started to winning 13 and making the state tournament with a first-round win. ... They know the goal is to go further than that, Batiste said.