Regaining the swagger

Bulldog seniors hope to return to past levels

Five years ago, they were the talk of the town.

Everyone associated with basketball in Craig was oohing and ahhing about the talented eighth-grade basketball team of Kevin Loughran, Justin Kawcak, Derek Ellgen, Cass Thompson, Derek Duran, Tim Knez, Zach Haddan and Chance Buckner.

Since fifth grade, they had traveled across the region winning AAU games against teams from the big cities in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Mike LeWarne had just accepted the head-coaching job for the high school team, and he pointed to the eighth-grade class as one that made the future of Moffat County basketball look bright.

Fast forward to today.

Tim Knez, one of the team's go-to guys, moved away after his freshman year. He averaged 14 points a game as a junior at Alameda last year.

Jarrod Holmlund, who joined the group from Fruita his freshman year, and Zach Haddan have had injuries every season. Haddan won't play this year, and Holmlund returned to practice this week after knee surgery.

With five of the guys from the group starting as juniors last year, the Bulldogs struggled through close loss after close loss, on the way to a 5-9 league record.

"We didn't have confidence in the second half of games," senior Thompson said. "You would always dread that fourth quarter."

Now, they're seniors, and it's their last chance to live up to their ballyhooed past.

The first thing the Bulldogs plan to do is put last year behind them.

They want to regain the swagger they had when they were beating teams such as Mullen and Fruita Monument in AAU tournaments. Part of putting it behind them is a new coaching staff.

LeWarne resigned last year, and Scott Parker was hired.

LeWarne and Parker are MCHS alumni who played under girls coach Craig Mortensen. That's where the similarities stop.

Parker's philosophy is one of up-tempo on offense and a trapping defense. LeWarne coached an aggressive man-to-man defense and a motion, half-court offense.

"It's not that one way is right or wrong," Parker said about the differences. "It's just that they're different."

Don't be surprised to see 6-foot 4-inch senior Loughran bring the ball down the court and pass it to 6-foot senior Kawcak posting up.

"We really have a lot of guys around 6 feet or taller who are interchangeable," Parker said. "It's a team that runs well."

The boys liked the run-and-gun attitude during summer ball.

"We had time to figure out what Parker was about and vice-versa," Duran said. "The summer made it fun again."

Being able to have fun in the summer also brought back some of the swagger.

"We're confident again," Thompson said.

Parker came back to Craig four years ago, and he heard stories about the talent of this group.

"I watched these guys as a spectator a lot," he said. "It's a very competitive group that wants to win."

The way the league looks this year, the Bulldogs can win. Only Battle Mountain returns more than two starters. Without Haddan, the Bulldogs return four starters, Duran, Loughran, Holmlund and Buckner, and four bench players, Ellgen, Thompson, Kawcak and junior Evan Hertzog.

Yet the Huskies, with five returnees, are favored to win the league.

"The pressure is on Battle Mountain," Loughran said. "We're not on the radar yet."

It's not Parker's style to worry about the rest of the league. His focus is on his team.

"I really don't need to know what we're going to face," he said. "We have to play aggressive on defense and get the ball up the court on offense."

Duran, who led the Bulldogs with 11 points a game last year, likes the new perspective.

"Sometimes, we would worry too much about what our opponent was bringing to the table," he said. "This year, the plan is to do what a team gives us. To be flexible."

The Bulldogs scrimmaged during Thanksgiving weekend in Grand Junction. Parker saw some things that needed improvement, but overall, he was happy with the team's first games since the summer.

"We have some adjustments on defense that come with learning a new system," he said. "But I feel pretty good with where we're starting."

To make this the Class of 2006's return to hoops glory, the seniors said they wanted a league title.

"It's been forever since we've won a league title," Duran said. "That should be our first goal. To bring that back to Moffat County."

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