R-C Sports Notebook: Off to Lawlor

At the beginning of this basketball season, Douglas boys' coach Corey Thacker, along with several of his players, mentioned the fact that they believed they'd be standing right back where they were at the end of last season " in the regional championship game.

I have to be honest, I didn't think there was a chance in the world that their beliefs would play out to be true. Obviously, I was very wrong.

The Tigers, after all, were coming in having lost their top two scorers, their top defender, a Division I-bound 6-10 center and the majority of their depth to graduation.

With two returning starters, I thought Douglas would be strong, but I couldn't have predicted that they would in fact make it back to the regional title game and earn the accompanying state berth.

This is Douglas High School basketball.

I've been watching it since I was six years old and while there have been some amazingly talented players and some genuinely strong teams to come through, it's been very rare that they've been among the elite programs in the region.

After Douglas' defeat of Galena last week to advance to state, it would appear that those times are behind us.

With a thriving AAU program that extends down to the fifth-grade level, and a Valley-wide population from which to draw, Douglas is set up to reload for a number of years to come.

Take this year for example. The Tigers came in with an unproven point guard, Ross Bertolone, less than a full year of varsity experience. Power forward Jeff Nady slid in to the middle to replace the void left by four-year All-Region pick Keith Olson. David Laird moved into the starting lineup to replace the spot left by Nady, where at 6-3 he represented a four-inch dropoff from his predecessor.

Nady turned into an honest-to-goodness powerhouse, averaging 17.6 points per game, Laird stepped up to become one of the region's top defenders while averaging 9.6 points per game and Bertolone improved with every game during the season, peaking during last week's regional playoffs.

James McLaughlin, who made the jump from raw talent as a sophomore last year to polished Division I prospect as a junior this year, averaged 10.9 points per game and became one of the league's top playmakers.

First-year coach Corey Thacker stepped in and barely missed a step in his first year leading a 4A program. His low-key style and aggressive defensive approach suited this group extremely well and it has showed in their ability to repeat last year's results against the expectations of many.

The Tigers also saw a good picture of its future as McLaughlin will be among the region's top players next year and sophomore CJ Marcotte showed flashes of brilliance in a somewhat reserved role this year.

Junior Parker Robertson will be among the toughest players to deal with inside next year with his 6-4, 257-pound frame and Tim Rudnick has been a solid change-of-pace option at the point. The Tigers also have a solid feeder program with a number of talented players set to make the jump from the junior varsity and freshman teams.

That all being said, there's still a lot of basketball left to be played as Douglas takes on Cheyenne Thursday in the first round of the state playoffs Thursday. It will be the Tigers' first appearance in the state tournament in 16 years.

For all of the weapons and depth that last year's team boasted, this year's squad has consistently performed better as a team. And teamwork, above all other things, is what carries teams come this time of year.

Thacker and his staff came up with a couple of superb gameplans last week, particularly in the regional semifinals against Galena.

In the first round, the Tigers kept Reed out its element and exploited what the Raiders' biggest strength (3-point shooting) while sacrificing the interior defense. It was a gamble, but Reed couldn't make up the difference.

Galena came in expecting to clog up the middle and prevent Nady from taking the game over. Douglas never gave them the chance, entrenching Nady on the perimeter to draw 6-8 All-American Luke Babbitt out of the paint, leaving it open for Laird who scored 11 points in the win.

The Grizzlies wanted to get to the rim early and often, but Douglas' mix of man and zone throughout forced a number of tough outside shots late in the game " including on Galena's final possession " that allowed the Tigers to hang on for the win.

While they still lost to Reno, Douglas was able to keep the Huskies from getting into a transitional rhythm in the regional championship game. It's a simple statement, but the execution of it alone was an amazing feat for the Tigers.

The Galena game couldn't have been any more familiar for the Tiger seniors Thursday evening.

It was last year in the same Spanish Springs gym that Douglas let a nine-point lead slip away as Galena claimed the regional title with a 56-55 win on a free throw with 50 second left from Eric Maupin.

The Tigers went on three separate two-minute droughts during the fourth quarter that allowed the Grizzlies back in.

This year, it was eerily similar as McLaughlin's field goal with 6:33 left put the Tigers up 44-32. While Douglas claimed a 12-point win with the shot, it proved to be the Tigers' final field goal of the night.

This time around, though, Douglas survived a 5-minute, 20-second scoring drought before Nady hit a free throw with 10.1 seconds left to clinch the win.

I have grown more impressed with Galena's Luke Babbitt each time I've seen him play. Last week, as he carried his team with 26 of his team's 43 points, I became convinced that he is among the best to have come through the Northern 4A.

The argument for Reno-high grad David Padgett is out there, as is current Nevada Wolf Pack standout Armon Johnson, who started for Hug the last three years.

Padgett's ability is without question, but he was plagued by injuries throughout his career in high school, while Babbitt has consistently been in the Grizzlies' starting lineup.

I have a high opinion of Johnson as well, and am looking forward to seeing he and Babbitt on the same team next year at Nevada.

All that being said, the best player of the entire regional tournament was Reno's Austin Morgan.

The junior guard was unstoppable, both on offense and defense, but his intangibles were what stood out to me during the regional title game.

Here's my best example: After a Douglas miss early in the fourth quarter while Douglas was still within reach, the Tigers dropped into a full-court press.

Rather than try to force the ball up the court, Morgan surveyed the defense quickly, called a timeout and headed for the bench.

The defense was heavy enough to have likely forced a turnover on the play, and Morgan picked up on the gravity of the situation in an instant. A turnover would have given Douglas the momentum, and in a title game momentum can be the hardest thing to regain.

Instead, Reno kept the ball and proceeded to go on a 7-2 run.

I predicted two upsets during last week's regional playoffs (Damonte Ranch boys over Galena and Spanish Springs girls over Reed). I was wrong on both. Very wrong.

Who was Douglas' opponent when they qualified for the boys' state tournament in 1992?

- The Douglas boys' basketball team suited up 15 players for the regional playoffs, up from 12 during the regular season. The Tigers called up sophomores Michael Whalin, Luis Pina and freshman Austin Neddenriep from the junior varsity level. That was nothing, though, compared to the Reed High School cheerleading squad, who brought a group of 23 down.

- I mentioned in my last column that there are at least nine different Tiger logos in the Douglas High School gym. I counted again and realized there are only eight.

I watched the entire first season of the new American Gladiators, which concluded Sunday night, on NBC.

Pretty solid, especially the part where Gladiators who've been eliminated from the event with all the guns get vaulted through a plume of smoke, across the giant soundstage and into a pool.

The event where competitors attempt to climb a giant pyramid made out of gym mats while Gladiators descend on them from the top is fantastic as well.

Now, if only they'd bring the man-sized hamster globes back ...



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