EVANSTON — As this season’s iteration of the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team prepares for the 2020 portion of its season, head coach Lex Cornia will be looking to his talented core of seniors to provide the spark needed to get the team back to the state tournament.
Of those seniors, post player Mason Ellingford has emerged as a leader on and off the court, a fact Cornia said doesn’t surprise him in the least.
“Mason is a great kid — he’s a leader, does it through example,” Cornia said. “Everybody knows that when he says something, he backs it up with his effort and his approach to practice.”
Ellingford started as a junior all of last season, and Cornia said it wasn’t uncommon for the 6’6” post to put the team on his shoulders when the situation called for it.
“His attitude — It doesn’t matter the situation, he [Ellingford] is going to look you in the eyes, he’s going to nod his head, he’s going to try to go do what you ask him to do,” Cornia said. “He’s been in some battles for us. He was a starter for us last year, and there were games he just carried us as a junior.”
“He’s a great teammate — he’s willing to challenge guys, but he’s also willing to put an arm around guys and help them,” Cornia added. “He’s just there for everything we do. He’s a workhorse, and he’s always going to show up and give his best effort. I can’t say enough about the kid.”
For Ellingford, the feeling is mutual.
“I love playing for Coach Cornia,” Ellingford said. “I think he’s a really good coach. He’s always right there to help us.”
Like many players his age, Ellingford discovered a passion for the game early, cultivating that passion in Junior Jazz, as well as playing on his older brother’s 6th grade traveling team as a 4th-grader.
“I’ve been playing basketball pretty much for as long as I can remember,” Ellingford said. “I remember when me and my brother were little, my dad teaching us how to play in the driveway. Growing up in Evanston, I was always watching the high school games. I’ve always just been around the game, and loved it.”
Asked what he enjoys most about the sport, Ellingford said the camaraderie he shares with his teammates, many of whom he’s been playing with for years.
“I just really like being able to be with my team — traveling with them and enjoying the game,” he said. “I’ve known everybody on our team for such a long time, we’ve grown up playing together. And now that it’s our last year, it’s a really cool feeling to be with each other every step of the way.”
While his team is struggling to find its footing in the early part of the season, Ellingford has been a bright spot on the stat sheet — he’s averaging 14 points per game, third in the 4A West, and his 69 percent field goal percentage is second in the state in 4A. He leads the 4A West in rebounds (9.6 per game) and is tops in the state in all classes in blocked shots (2.4 per game).
“This year, Mason’s been a go-to guy — teams know they have to account for Mason Ellingford inside,” Cornia said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve shot the ball as well as we have, is the amount of attention he gets down low.”
It’s been a brutal start to the 2019-20 season for the Red Devils, opening with back-to-back road tournaments without a win against stiff competition, from in and out of Wyoming.
“This year especially, going from Gillette to Green River and Rock Springs, now to Cheyenne — it’s a lot of travel,” Ellingford said. “It’s a lot of time on the bus. We’ll be glad to finally get a home game for a change.”
It won’t get easier anytime soon — Evanston will open the 2020 portion of its schedule on the road as well, this time at the Taco John’s Invitational in Cheyenne Jan. 9-11. If the 0-7 Red Devils hope to finally break into the win column, they’ll have to do it against some of the top teams in 4A.
“I think we have the toughest preseason schedule of anybody in the state,” Cornia explained. “At Cheyenne, we’ll be playing two of the top five teams in 4A on their home floor. As long as guys understand that that’s what we’re doing — we’re trying to test ourselves, and we have definitely been tested. These are all things that get us better in the long run.”
“As a team, I think once we all settle into it, we’re going to be able to do some really great things this year,” he said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that we’ll be going to state with a chance to really compete for it all this year...We’ve been thrown for a little bit of a loop with this start, but I think we’ll settle down soon and just get to work on getting where we want to be.”
Last year, the Red Devils defied early-season expectations to finish with a 15-13 regular season record. Evanston qualified for the 4A state tournament in Casper and posted a 2-1 record, winning the consolation championship. Ellingford points to that tournament as one of the highlights of his prep career.
““One of my favorite moments from playing varsity was from last year at state,” he said. “Being with the seniors last year was just really fun, and seeing what our whole season built to was special. It was fun to be able to play in Casper.”
As for goals this season, Ellingford said personal accolades are nice, but a return to the state tournament with his teammates definitely tops the list.
“Individually, I think it would be really great to be All-State and All-Conference,” he explained. “But right now, I think the biggest goal for me is helping right the ship. Everyone on the team is extremely talented. We’ll figure it out, for sure.”
Though he’s intrigued by the idea of playing basketball at the next level, Ellingford said by the time basketball season rolls around next year, he’ll most likely be focused on his studies.
“I think it would be really fun to be able to play in college — it would be a really great experience,” he said. “But I think next year after I graduate, I’m going to go to the University of Wyoming and just focus on the student life.”
Cornia said whatever the future holds for Ellingford, his attitude and work ethic will serve him well.
“He’s a good student, he takes care of things in the classroom,” Cornia said. “On the court, he’s relentless — if he goes up for a shot, he’s going to follow it. He’s going to box out, he’s going to rebound — he has really good touch around the rim. Defensively, he’s what we’re trying to build around. He’s just so intimidating down there. He’s never in the wrong spot.”