No. 1 Warriors begin title defense
December 9, 2021
WORLAND — What is harder than winning a 3A State boys basketball championship? The answer, defending a 3A State title.
That’s the position the No.1-ranked Worland Warriors are in as they head into the 2022 season.
What the Warriors have going for them is that they return three starters and seven players from that state title team. What the team will need to figure out is how to replicate the production from Mack Page and Rudy Sanford.
Sanford scored 389 points last season, averaging 16.9 per game, and Page led the team with 416 points with 18.1 per game. Sanford was the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter at 45 percent, the only player to shoot in the 40s. Page led the team in rebounding with 168, averaging 7.3 per game.
“On the floor, it’s a sure question of roles,” said WHS basketball coach Aaron Abel. “The guys will point to that we have a lot of lettermen returning and varsity starters. That’s true, but this year everyone’s role will be different than it was a year ago. We met with the guys the week after football finished, and we talked about who would replace the scoring.
“If you think back to the state championship game against Mountain View, we scored 55 points, and 38 of them were Mack or Rudy. Who are we drawing plays up when the game is on the line? Who is going to lead us in scoring?”
So far, during the first weeks of practice. The Warriors have taken a scoring by committee approach.
“Right now, they think it’s going to be a committee effort. I told them that’s great if that happens, but I’ve had teams that ended up underachieving because of that. The 2019 team would be a good example of us having a lot of capable scorers, but we didn’t have clearly defined roles, which led us to have no capable scorers sometimes.
“It’s one of those things where there does need to be a pecking order at some point. Maybe it can change from game to game. Some of my best teams, like the 2016 team, Hoyt Nicholas led the team in scoring every night. That was a constant. Last year it was one of two guys every single night,” said Abel.
The balancing act for the Warriors will come when a player is the focus one night, but the next, he’s taking a back seat to a teammate for that game or stretch of games.
“It’ll be a challenge for them mentally because I’ve got four guys capable of going out and getting double figures any night. The trick is not all four will do that, so how will you respond when you score two in a win. It’s easy to say in November that you’ll be unselfish and make the extra pass and not care about your stats.
“It’ll be a little bit harder when your parents ask you what was wrong with you tonight, why did you only have four points? Those things can get tricky, but we have to let it play out a bit in this first month and a half of the season,” said Abel. “We’ll also need to focus on taking great shots. We have to keep the focus on layups, paint 3s and free throws and only shoot those kinds of shots.”
Then there’s the leadership that Page and Sanford provided.
“Off the floor, the thing with Rudy, Mack and Luke [Mortimer] the year before that, we had leaders that basketball was the thing they cared about. They set the expectation in the offseason of getting better as a team. We didn’t have that this offseason.
“We had Court Gonsalez and Carter Clark put in a lot of time. Summer is getting more and more packed for these guys, and it was hard to get the whole team together,” said Abel. “In fact, we never had all seven varsity returners together in the same spot in the entire offseason. That’s created more of a learning curve for us on both sides of the ball. Usually, we’re going into the season, and we know who our starting five is going to be and what we’ll be good at offensively.”
Abel continued, “This year, there are more question marks because we didn’t have as good of an offseason. Some of that is a carryover from COVID limiting our offseason the year before. Then some of that is a lack of leadership. Those are the two areas where we’ll miss guys like Rudy and Mack the most.”
While the Warriors will use the non-conference portion of their season to figure out the offense, defensively, they could be just as strong as they were last season.
The Warriors have the athletes and rim protectors to make life difficult for the best of offenses.
“Our defense is layered in teaching it from the basket outward. We’ve talked about how we’re going to full-court man-to-man teams and save our zone presses for later in our conference schedule. Last year that was one of our mistakes in that we counted on our zone press to win us games, which it did all through December and first three weeks of January. Then when teams had enough film on it and started to get better conditioned, our press became far less effective.
“We want to focus on getting stops when we’re not forcing turnovers. We’ve got a couple of great shot blockers we want to utilize. That way, our perimeter defenders can defend with confidence knowing if they get beat, they’ve Landen Gilmore and Kolter Wyman ready to change or block shots. I think we’ll have two of the better shot blockers in 3A with those two guys,” said Abel.
As it was last season, the 3A field will be just as tough, if not tougher. The 3A West is still strong, but the 3A East has several teams who belong in the contender mix.
Over in the East, Rawlins leads the pack with Douglas, Wheatland and Buffalo in the mix. Then in the West, you have Worland, Lyman, Mountain View and Lander. The Warriors division, the 3A Northwest, is no cakewalk. You have the Warriors and Lander, but Powell and Lovell will be tough outs too.
“3A is very balanced. I don’t think there’ll be a super-team that goes undefeated. Everybody is going to be competitive. You’re going to have to play hard and play well and defend every night, or you’re in danger of getting beat,” said Abel.
The Warriors begin their title defense next week in Lander at the Lander Invitational on Dec. 17-18.
“It’s about defining our offensive roles and finding out what lineups play the best together. We’ll probably rotate our starting lineup a bit when we play in Lander.
“A lot of it will be seeing how we can pressure teams defensively without taking too many risks. Seeing how we defend with our pressure man-to-man. If some of the subtle changes we’ve made to our defense are going to work, or if I’m way off track and we need to go back to what we’ve done in the past. That’ll be things for us to look forward to in our opening weekend,” said Abel when talking about the team’s goals in Lander.