Hayden junior Carlos Valdez, right, goes up for a shot in practice Saturday against Jorge Valdez, a player from last year's 21-3 squad and currently one of the Tigers' volunteer coaches.

Photo by Ben Ingersoll

Hayden junior Carlos Valdez, right, goes up for a shot in practice Saturday against Jorge Valdez, a player from last year's 21-3 squad and currently one of the Tigers' volunteer coaches.

Hayden boys basketball fighting through inexperience, injuries

— If you’re Hayden High School boys basketball coach Mike Luppes, what do you do for an encore to last year’s 21-3, league-championship season, one of the Tigers’ best in recent memory?

Graduation certainly isn’t doing Luppes and the Tigers any favors. Four of Hayden’s starters were seniors, and three of them combined to score 43 points per game a year ago.

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Hayden boys basketball coach Mike Luppes gets in on the scrimmage action during Saturday's practice, working some post moves on Thomas Rauch.

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Senior Dan Engle pushes the ball up the floor during Saturday's practice. Engle said he has been taking over point guard duties with teammate Isaac Bridges out from injury.

At least a healthy incoming group would help, but Hayden’s early-season practices are beginning to look like a MASH unit. A slew of injuries to key players has forced Luppes to turn to underclassmen during the past few weeks. Putting on a full-court scrimmage in practice has proven difficult, and the Tigers’ sixth-year coach has taken on volunteer coaches — even a few players from the 2012-13 team — to give his players a look at some simulated game experience.

One preseason projected starter even opted to take on a job in town instead of going out for the team.

Luppes realizes the hand he’s been dealt in the early going; he’s frequently reminded by outsiders. But he also wants to make one thing clear: Don’t count his Tigers out.

“I’ve had a lot of people talk to me and say, ‘Boy, it’s going to be a tough and rebuilding year.’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s not,’” Luppes said. “We’ve got some good kids here.”

The injuries, though, are tough to ignore. Senior Isaac Bridges (seven points per game in 2012-13) has been forced to sit out until at least Christmas with a lingering knee injury. Another senior, Greg Frentress, is expected to miss some time, as well, with a bummed ankle. Senior Dan Engle is one of Luppes’ lone healthy and proven starters who can practice.

When the Tigers’ season opens up in a week against Saratoga, there likely will be a steady presence of young, inexperienced players on the floor. Luppes is OK with that.

“It will take a little bit for these guys to come around,” Luppes said. “But in the end, I’m the optimist. Some of these kids are going to get some playing time who we will have to rely on during the rest of the season.”

However the situation may play out, Luppes said his leaders are up to the task and have been good mentors to players getting their first taste of varsity basketball.

“Hopefully, our guys can just step up and fill those roles of those guys we lost from last year,” Bridges said. “I would just like to get the younger kids caught up to speed.”

Luppes admitted that the team’s athleticism isn’t exactly where it was a year ago, and player conditioning is critical. A heavy dose of zone defense and shooters on offense will have to pace Hayden if it's to repeat as 2A/1A Western Slope League champion.

Players aren’t the only ones who will be taking advantage of this season’s learning opportunities. Their coach said he’s been fortunate to coach a successful bunch the past few years, but he’s as excited as ever to see how his new 14 players will compete.

“I feel like this is when you really learn how to coach,” Luppes said. “When you’ve got all the talent in the world, yes, there are things expected. It’s when you hit these rocky parts when the coaching really needs to kick in.”

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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