EVANSTON — After an 0-7 start to the 2019-20 season, the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team will open 2020 in search of their first win at this weekend’s Taco John’s Invitational in Cheyenne.
It won’t be easy. Each opponent the Red Devils are scheduled to face are currently ranked in the top five in Class 4A, including No. 1 Cheyenne Central (6-0) and No. 2 Sheridan (4-1). The Central game will be played on the Indians’ home floor; Thursday’s opener against Cheyenne East (4-3), no slouch themselves at No. 5, will also be a home game for the Thunderbirds.
A tall order, to be sure — but one EHS head coach Lex Cornia said the Red Devils are prepared for.
“We’ve been really happy with the team’s mindset and approach over the course of the break,” Cornia said. “I think the guys have embraced that, yeah, we’ve had some challenges, but everything is ahead at this point.”
The Red Devils got off to a slow start last season, but were able to regroup after the holidays and qualify for the state tournament. Cornia said it’s not time to push the panic button quite yet.
“After a start like ours, approach and mindset [are] your biggest concern[s],” Cornia said. “Last year, we didn’t have a much better record at this point than we do now. I think we won just three games in our first three tournaments. That was something we weren’t used to. We just want to keep guys focused on their ultimate goal — still being positive and working hard. The last few nights of practice have been solid.”
“They’ve bought into the idea that nothing has counted yet. They know the gauntlet they’ve run through with the opponents they’ve faced,” Cornia continued, “but they also look at it as a chance to grow, a chance to learn. Once things start counting, we’ll be better for the challenge we took on.”
The Cheyenne Invite has always been a tough test for Evanston, but Cornia said it’s a great way to assess out-of-conference teams that they won’t see again until post-season tournament time.
“This tournament is a great chance to see the teams on the east side of the state,” he explained. “In the past, we’ve taken our lumps at this tournament. We usually finish 1-2 historically. But it’s a challenge that you need this time of year — we’re two weeks away from our conference schedule, and we play on some hostile floors in conference play, as well.”
A quick look at the rosters of the three teams Evanston squares off against this weekend reads like a who’s-who in 4A hoops. Central’s 7-footer, Lawson Lovering, is averaging a double-double this season, with 16 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Lovering’s teammate, wing player Nathanial Talich is averaging 20.8 points per game, to go along with dishing off four assists per contest.
“Lawson Lovering — I think the kid is 7’1” right now, but he looks like he’s 7’2” on film,” Cornia said. “He’s a special player, he’s been dominant. Talich at the wing is very athletic, very skilled, good leader.”
Cornia said his post players will have to be at the top of their game to slow Lovering down. Mason Ellingford leads the charge for the Red Devils in the paint, averaging almost a double-double (14 points, 9.6 boards per game) himself this season. But Cornia is looking to his other post — Wade Bowen — to also step up his game in Cheyenne.
“I think Mason [Ellingford] has really carried us — I think our big guys know they have a huge challenge,” Cornia said. “Wade Bowen — I think this is going to be a big tournament for him. With the size of the teams that we play, he’s going to have to be big, and I think this will be a huge growth opportunity for him.”
Cheyenne East’s Xavier McCord leads the T-Birds in just about every statistical category, averaging 16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. East has two other players averaging double digits as well in Chance Aumiller (13.4) and Graeden Buell (10.9).
“East has superb athletes — they’ve dropped a game or two, but they have kids that have been playing varsity basketball since their freshman year,” Cornia said. “I do expect to see some kids grow.”
Sheridan’s Gus Wright has been good for 20 points and 6.2 boards a contest this season, while fellow Bronc Samuel Lecholat is averaging a double-double with 18.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game.
Turnovers have plagued the Red Devils early, and Cornia said his primary ball handlers — Burke Thomas, Dawson Crofts and David Baxter — will have to focus on taking care of the ball in the face of relentless defense. Crofts is the only other Red Devil averaging double digits this season with 11.1 points per game. Baxter is averaging 8.4 points per game and has been deadly from behind the arc, hitting 13 of 31 3-pointers for a 42 percent clip. Thomas is right behind Baxter with 11 3-pointers on the year.
“We know that turnovers have been an issue in our first few games,” Cornia said. “We’re playing some teams that will get up and defend you. One huge focus of practice has been just ball security and decision-making. We need to limit our turnovers. It’s a good opportunity in the two-and-a-half weeks we’ve been off to see how much you’ve grown, how much have you addressed some of these issues.”
Regardless of whether Evanston breaks out of their 0-7 funk this weekend, Cornia said the team is heading into the weekend with a renewed focus; it’s just a matter of time before the team starts to click the way he knows they can.
“We wish that we had a better record, but at the same time, that record has no bearing on the two weekends in March that we focus on,” Cornia said. “It takes a huge level of maturity for a 17-year-old kid at this point of the season to stay committed and positive after the start we’ve had. It’s a battle, but it’s a battle these kids have been fighting. So we’ve been really proud of them for that.”