Photo by Les Stukenberg.
PRESCOTT — Nearly 10 months ago, North Canyon eliminated the Prescott boys’ basketball team from the state playoffs, but ask any returning player or coach, and they’ll tell you their season ended well before that February night in Phoenix.
Coming off a 64-51 win over Sedona at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, pushing the Badgers’ record to 9-4 at the time, Prescott faced rival Bradshaw Mountain on Jan. 6 in front of a jam-packed Gary Kunow Gymnasium.
Up 57-48 with 2:18 to play, Prescott somehow surrendered an 11-1 run by the Bears, capped by two Blake Huntley free throws to finish the dramatic 59-58 come-from-behind victory for Bradshaw Mountain.
Prescott suffered four straight losses, including that night in Prescott Valley, and managed to win only five of its final 12 contests in a bitter end to what started as a promising year.
This season, however, the Badgers have put all of that behind them, learned from their mistakes and are moving forward.
“We let one game define us in the Bradshaw [Mountain] game. It took away all of our hype, our motivation,” junior returner Kody Jones said, while in the same breath promised this season will be different.
“This year, not ragging on last year’s seniors at all, but we have a great group of seniors that want to be great, that want to do something special,” Jones said. “We have the heart and the attitude to do something special this year.”
Prescott (14-11 in 2015-16) lost four seniors to graduation, including Logan Smith, Tyler Bell, Drew Raskin and Matt Mendibles.
“It’s tough to replace that kind of quality. Those were four young men who brought not only basketball skill, but leadership,” longtime Prescott head coach Adam Neely said, adding his current Badger club has “solid team chemistry” based on how quickly they’ve bonded.
“We have 13 guys right now who are seemingly recognizing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Neely said. “They are looking at all this hard work and what we want to accomplish from it.”
Neely aims to convince his club that no one game is “more valuable than another” this season, because it’s a “day-to-day process.”
“Every practice, every opportunity, we need to get the best of that. What we saw at the end of last season is we hit a bump in the road, we lost a game we didn’t expect to, and in turn we responded negatively,” Neely said. “You’re going to have days like that, but we have to be able to respond the next time out. Every single day matters.”
Along with Jones, who may see time at point guard this season, senior Paxton Henry returns looking to provide more than just energy off the bench.
Henry said the squad is working on boxing out and denying the ball on defense consistently in practice, but to avoid last season’s disappointing finish, the Badgers need to stay “excited.”
“We need to keep playing every day and not dread going to practice,” Henry said. “We need to be just as excited for practice as we are games.”
Neely plans to use Henry on the wing more this season, but recognizes that no matter where the 5-foot-11, 170-pound crazy-athletic senior is on the court, the Badgers will get a “ball of energy.”
“That’s what he is. … He’s dangerous in transition and getting to the rim, and I think we can find that same energy on both ends, we just have to make sure we have more people to find that energy off the bench in the same fashion,” Neely said.
Jackson Tillapaugh, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who made varsity last season as a freshman, said last year was a great year, “but we understand we can do better.”
“We still have some good pieces and seniors coming back,” Tillapaugh said. “We need to listen to them, fall into our roles and accept it, trust in the program, trust in the process.”
The sophomore sat out practice most of last week after rolling his ankle during an exhibition contest against North on Nov. 19, but Neely said Tillapaugh is good to go for tonight’s opener with Apache Junction.
Other returners for Prescott this season include seniors Jesse Regaldo and Walter Riggs. Notable newcomers include junior Ryan Greene, Joey Christopherson, Dallin Jex and Cameron Parsons.
Prescott (0-0, 0-0 Grand Canyon) opens the 2016-2017 campaign tonight at Apache Junction, with a scheduled tipoff set for 7 p.m.
The Badgers host Cactus in their home opener Tuesday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m.
Brian M. Bergner Jr. is a sports writer and columnist for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Periscope and SoundCloud at @SportsWriter52, or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Reach him by phone at 928-445-3333, ext. 1106.
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