Practice has officially begun for the 2022-23 Evanston High School boys’ basketball team, and this year’s incarnation of the Red Devils will look to build around a mix of crafty veterans and talented underclassmen.
“It’s a good group – I think they’re pretty well connected as a team,” said EHS head coach Rob Watsabaugh, now entering his third season at the helm. “Good energy, they’re competitive and they’re hungry, which is good.”
The Red Devils struggled to a 4-18 record last season (0-8 in the 4A Southwest Quadrant), though they ended the season on a high note, with a 45-44 upset of Cody in the 4A West Regional Tournament. Evanston is returning three seniors, though only one — Bryton Smith — saw significant playing time at the varsity level last season.
“We have three seniors — Bryton Smith, Caleb Welling and Dylan Liechty,” Watsabaugh said. “All three lead in different ways. They’re kind of the soft-spoken, lead by example-type guys. They have the right attitude — they lean on each other, and have really embraced the team mentality. I think all three of them are able to let themselves rely on our juniors and sophomores to help them have a successful senior year.”
Smith appeared in 15 games for the Red Devils last season, averaging 7.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game; he was the leading scorer in the Red Devils’ upset of Cody at the Regional Tournament, netting 19 points.
“I want Bryton to obviously pick up where he left off, if not be at an even higher level,” Watsabaugh said. “We had a lot of games this summer, a lot of open gyms, and he put in the time in the weight room, as well. We’re hoping to see the results of that on game one.”
The Red Devils have seven juniors on this year’s roster, led by Kai Barker and Cohen Morrow, both of whom saw significant playing time last season as sophomores.
“Our junior group has a lot of drive – within them, they want to be competitors,” Watsabaugh said. “I would describe — not just the juniors, but the sophomores, as well — as workers. They show up, they do what they’re asked, and they also do things away from us, like going to the gym and the weight room. They’re hungry, they’re driven and they’re hard workers, with us and without us.”
Barker was a spot starter last season as a sophomore, averaging 5.6 points per game; he led the team in rebounding, with 5.5 per game. Morrow saw action in all 23 games, averaging 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
“The significant minutes among our juniors last season were from Kai Barker and Cohen Morrow,” Watsabaugh said. “We had some guys sprinkled in there a little bit — Drew Barker got a little bit of time, Gavin Oliver got limited minutes. We’re still going to be fairly inexperienced at the varsity level, but what they’ve done in the offseason has been great. They’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Watsabaugh is also expecting big things from sophomore guard Jay Hill, who saw action in 15 varsity games as a freshman last season.
“I want Jay Hill to be at a higher level than he was last year,” Watsabaugh said. “Going from playing eighth-grade basketball to varsity basketball like he did was a huge step, so hopefully his familiarity with the game — as well as being comfortable and confident — will serve him well. He put in a lot of work over the summer — I think he made 20,000 shots in the offseason.”
As for the rest of the sophomores, Watsabaugh said they’re a hard-working group who achieved success at the freshman level, posting a 19-4 record last season.
“The rest of the sophomore class are driven, they’re competitors,” Watsabaugh said. “They were a great team last year, and they’re very well-connected as a group. They get along great with the juniors and the seniors, and they want to make everyone around them better. It’s been a good week, so far.”
As he prepares for the start of his third season as head coach, Watsabaugh said a return to the 4A State Tournament is always the goal.
“I’m feeling good — I’m building deeper relationships with the players, being around them for three years,” Watsabaugh explained. “I’m learning a lot from them, and they’re learning a lot from me. We’re trying some new things this year, some different defensive schemes. Offensively, we’ll be a little bit more free, letting the players go make plays. We’re really excited about that.”
“I think they’re very well-connected — they want to compete, and they want to win,” Watsabaugh added. “They’re doing the little things, paying attention to detail. Everything matters, and I think they’re holding themselves and each other to a high standard. They’re a very well-rounded group, on and off the floor. A little young, but they’re hungry.”
The Red Devils open the 2022-23 season next weekend at the Oil City Tip-Off in Casper.
“Going into Casper, it’s a short turnaround — you have just 10 or 11 days of practice before it’s time to play,” Watsabaugh explained. “We went two-a-days last week, and we’re doing the same this week, as well. With Casper, I just want to see where we are, with the new things that we’re going to do offensively and defensively. Being competitive is the goal this first weekend, and hopefully steal a few games on the road; be in some of these games, with chances to win. That would be our best-case scenario.”
And his expectations for the season?
“As we get into the year, finishing in the top half of the 4A West is our goal,” Watsabaugh said. “That’s where we’d like to be sitting at the end of the year. Compete, and put a good product on the floor. They’re a tough group, and they play well together.”