It was tough sledding last year for the Augusta County boys basketball teams in the Shenandoah District.
All four teams — Buffalo Gap, Riverheads, Stuarts Draft and Wilson Memorial — finished with sub-.500 records, with Stuarts Draft being the lone team to make any headway in the postseason.
Fast forward to this year, and things are looking somewhat better for those teams. All of them have a number of returning players who could provide the necessary experience to turn things around.
(12-14 In 2015-16)
There were some rumors floating around in the preseason that the Cougars were going to abandon their frenetic style of play for a more conventional approach.
Nope. Not happening.
The Cougars, who improved their record to 2-0 with a win over Fort Defiance on Tuesday, are still pushing the ball, still pressing on defense and still subbing five players at a time.
In fact, head coach Mike Gale only needs five words to sum up his team’s game plan.
“Run, shoot, rebound, trap, sub.”
And beating last year’s win total is not the most important goal for the team, said Gale.
“We don’t have a set number of wins for our team goal,” he said. “We want to be playing our best basketball toward the end of the season. We have high expectations for the season, and we expect to be highly competitive in both the district and conference.”
With a veteran squad that features 11 returning players, Draft has the chance to do exactly that.
Leading the pack is senior John Gumann, a first-team All-City/County selection last year. The big man, who was first-team All-Shenandoah, averaged 12.8 ppg and 8.3 rpg.
Jonathon White and Dalton McGann, also seniors, averaged in double figures last year at 10.3 and 10.1, respectively. White was a second-team all-district selection last year.
JonPaul Rader will see most of his action from the point, as will Antonio Ruiz-Haynes, who averaged just over eight points per game as a freshman last year. Seniors Taylor Reed, Garrett Campbell and Trevor Martin are in the rotation, as is Carson Peck, who missed all of last season with a torn knee ligament.
Underclassmen among the returnees include junior Eric Custard and sophomore Tyler Goodwin.
Gale has a quintet of newcomers who will battle for playing time in juniors Nick Lasam, Trevor Craig, Walker Aldhizer and Colin Williams, and freshman Kasey Branch.
(4-18 In 2015-16)
Staying competitive in the Shenandoah District is tough enough, but it’s a little tougher for the Gladiators. Once again, they have gotten off to a late start to the season, thanks to the playoff success of the football team, and are trying to play catch-up with the rest of the district.
But head coach Chad Coffey is feeling optimistic about his team’s chances this season, especially after going through a rugged 4-18 slate last year.
“We have a solid core of returners who took their lumps last season,” Coffey said. “This year’s roster still looks young on paper, but it has much more experience than last season. The district is always a tough one to play in, night in and night out, which means we will have to be fundamentally sound and disciplined.”
The Red Pride played well enough at the end of last year to win their Conference 44 tournament opener with Stonewall Jackson before falling to Altavista in the second round.
Riverheads’ experience is embodied in senior Brett Hostetler and sophomore Drew Bond, both of whom were named to the All-Conference 44 second team last year. Hostetler was the Red Pride’s leading scorer at 12.0 ppg, while Bond averaged 5.0 ppg.
Austin Craft, who scored about 6.0 ppg, and Dylan Craig, both seniors, are back. Looking to contribute are juniors Jalen Brown and Bradley Roberts, and sophomore Forrest Shuey.
The youth Coffey referred to is in his new players, some of who have already made contributions. Freshman Braeson Fulton scored 12 points, while classmate Grant Painter chalked up 11 in the Gladiators’ opening-night win over Fort Defiance on Wednesday.
Look for sophomore Avery Schaefer and freshmen Elijah Dunlap and Zach Adams to battle for playing time.
(6-18 In 2015-16)
The Bison, who struggled last season, are still relatively young, carrying just two seniors on their roster — Addison McGuffin and Brock Moore. Both saw ample time last year, with McGuffin averaging about 10 ppg and Moore shouldering the burden at point guard.
We expect to play one game at a time and try to make each effort better than the last,” Gap coach Chad Ward said. “I think this year’s team will see a big difference in who we are in December and who we are come February.”
Junior Koty Fitzgerald is another returnee who will look for more playing time. Carter Rivenburg, Jacob Callison, Dylan Rankin, and Brett Cross are up from last year’s jayvee squad, while Camden Friedmann and Cody McCray are two newcomers to the program.
Citing a lack of size, Ward will rely on his players’ discipline and execution from the outside. Defensively, it will be man-to-man, as it always is with Ward.
“It is man defense all day, every day, regardless of the match up,” he said. “I’ve haven’t coached a zone defense in over 10 years now and don’t plan on changing that anytime soon.”
After opening the season with four losses, the Bison got into the win column Monday, beating James River-Buchanan 62-59. Rivenburg paced Gap with 15 points, while McGuffin had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Moore finished with 12 and Callison added 11.
(7-16 In 2015-16)
Speaking of a young roster …
The Green Hornets lost several experienced players from last year’s team, including second-team All-City/County selection Keaton Boysen. That means head coach Scott Crist will try to get his new players some experience before getting into the latter stages of the season.
“We don’t have a ton of varsity playing experience, so getting some game experience for the young players will be a key as we approach the second half of our schedule,” Crist said. “I like the competitive toughness of this team, and if we can keep competing hard in practice, competing on every single possession, we should be able to maximize our potential, which is the ultimate goal for us.”
Crist has five players back from last year’s squad, two of whom are seniors.
One of the seniors is Ryan Pierce, who averaged 9.2 ppg and 3.1 apg in 2015-16. Crist expects him bring a lot of energy to both ends of the floor.
Zay Brown has taken his experience from last year and used it to his advantage. The 6-foot-3 post man has played well for the Hornets, who their first game of the season Tuesday, beating Parry McCluer 44-41.
“He now knows what to expect in the paint area, how he needs to bring a physical presence to our team,” Crist said. “He has improved his offensive post moves, and hopefully, he is ready to raise his level of play.”
Junior Eddie Harris is a team leader and likes to mix it up on the defensive end, while Collin Ballew, according to Crist, “is the player who does the dirty work down low in the post. He brings a football mentality to our team, which is certainly beneficial.”
Luke Jordan, a sophomore, has shown improvement in his conditioning, and is aiming to be a threat from the outside, as well as the lane.
Newcomers include sophomores Chance Church, Garrick Welch and Jacob Sears, and freshman Matt Poole, all of whom should be abl to help the Hornets up their game.
“We have several guys who can shoot from distance, but at the same time, not forget about getting our bigs some post touches,” Crist said. “Defensively, we want to play solid, pressure man-to-man defense, get in the passing lanes and put pressure on the ball.”