EVANSTON — Practice has officially begun for the 2019-20 Evanston High School boys’ basketball team, and this year’s incarnation of the Red Devils will look to build around a talented senior class.
“We’ve really liked our guys this fall,” said EHS head coach Lex Cornia, entering his fourth season at the helm. “I think this group of guys is just really hungry to win. We’ve had some success in the past, we just haven’t been able to get over that semi-final game. I think these guys know the price of success, but the goal is not just to make it to state and win a few games — we want to be playing in the biggest games, and I think they’ve embraced that.”
The Red Devils posted a 15-13 overall record last season behind a strong senior class, eventually losing to Sheridan in the quarterfinals of the 4A state tournament in Casper. Evanston is returning six seniors, though only two saw significant playing time at the varsity level last season; that said, it’s a core group that have been playing together since their Junior Jazz days. The team played 32 games over the summer at various camps, and it’s a team with a lot of weapons.
“We are a little inexperienced, but we have a good group of juniors, one of whom had quite a bit of experience last year, especially toward the end of the season,” Cornia said. “So we bring back, honestly, probably more experience than we have in the past, though a lot of guys will be playing their first varsity basketball this season.”
Mason Ellingford and Dawson Crofts are the two seniors who played the most minutes on varsity last season, and Cornia said he expects the duo to set the tone early. At 6’6,” Ellingford will be counted on to provide a strong presence inside for the Red Devils, while Croft is an experienced 6’3” guard.
“Mason was our primary post last year, and he comes in with a ton of experience,” Cornia said. “He knows what it takes, and he’s played in those big games. He’ll be someone who really solidifies us. Dawson has played guard for us — he’s really lanky and looked really good in the preseason.”
Cornia is also impressed with the work ethic of senior forward David Baxter and juniors Braxton Lind and Burke Thomas.
“David Baxter has just put a ton of work in to become a very good shooter and has made it his mission to be an impact on the varsity floor,” Cornia said. “Braxton and Burke have both looked really nice. I think we’ll have quite a bit of depth this year.”
Seniors Casey Periman and Latham Chandler are also hard workers, who Cornia said “defend really well,” and first-year Red Devil Chase Brady, who recently moved to the area for his senior season, is “a good body with a good work ethic.”
“I would say that our work ethic this year, we’ve been really happy with what they’ve done over the summer,” he added. “I think we can be very competitive, and I like our chemistry.”
Cornia has been equally impressed with the sophomores and freshmen, calling them “guys [who] really want to be Red Devils.” When they step on the floor, they know the work that it takes and what they have to do to be part of the program.
“They’re raw, they’re newer to the program,” he said. “Not many sophomores played JV last year, they played primarily in the C-team program. Whenever you move up a little, the game is faster, the guys are stronger. They’ll definitely have some adjusting to do. As a group, we really like our underclassmen — they play well together. It’s a solid group, collectively.”
Cornia said the learning curve will be high, but the team played well in preseason tournaments.
“That’s why we have preseason games, that’s why we go to these tournaments,” he said. “Typically, it seems like guys adjust, and by the time March rolls around, they’re ready to go. We’re one of the smallest teams in our classification, so nothing is going to come easy.”
Assisting Cornia this season will be coaches Brian Barker and Steven Neal.
“Brian has been coaching for over 20 years and has been a part of a lot of coaching staffs,” Cornia said. “The guys really respect him, and he has a ton of basketball knowledge. Steven is a new staff member out of Gillette and will coach the C-team. He brings a lot of energy and works really hard. We’re excited for him.”
Although it’s early yet for realistic expectations for the season, Cornia said his teams have a tendency to fly under the radar — and that’s just fine by him.
“There’s a long tradition of Evanston exceeding what everyone expects them to do,” he said. “I think our guys know that. We won’t be anyone’s favorite going in — the last three seasons, we haven’t had a preseason ranking. But we finished in the top four all three years. I think our guys embrace that. We don’t mind being overlooked.”