Central senior core sets sights on SWL crown
There were times last season where the Central High School boys basketball team felt like it had the Southwestern League championship in its grasp.
But two costly losses to Durango undid some of the Warriors’ late-season magic. Wins over Fruita Monument and eventual league champion Grand Junction ended up being meaningless in the title race.
Central’s core of guards — many of whom have played varsity basketball together since they were freshmen — are now seniors. Koby Steves, Kyle Blair and Julio Galindo each provided spurts of offense last season in a guard-heavy starting lineup, as did key bench guard Nolan Scott. They have a trip to the Class 5A playoffs under their belts and, for the first time in five seasons under coach Ryan Hayden, finished with a winning record.
It was a big step up for the Warriors in many ways, despite coming up short in the SWL title race. But as success and consistency grows, so do the expectations in Hayden’s sixth season.
“I think our No. 1 team goal is to try and take care of the league championship,” Hayden said. “I think any team over here, 5A-wise, it’s such a paramount thing in terms of playoff seeding and a little bit of bragging rights, obviously. But if you really want to make some kind of playoff push, that Southwestern League crown gets you in the door and in a nice spot. That’s what we’re setting our sights on. Anything beyond that is going to take care of itself.
“The competition is definitely going to be tough. Junction, coming off that great team they had, they reloaded and they’re solid. Fruita is going to be really solid and Durango is another team that we’re hearing really good things about.”
Success starts with the core of four — the Warriors’ backcourt.
Blair, who battled injury and illness last season, ended up as the Warriors’ second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game. Steves and Galindo distributed the basketball and added scoring contributions, with Steves, particularly, scoring in the teens regularly late in the season. Galindo, Steves and Nolan provided large defensive boosts, each averaging at least one steal per game.
Galindo said team defense, something that wasn’t always there for the Warriors last season, is a strength of this year’s group.
“I feel defensive game will be more competitive this year,” Galindo said. “We’re going to be taking more charges, better help-side (defense), bigs who can stop people in the paint. We have a great group of guys and we’ll see what happens.”
Hayden joked that the group can play “a little too quietly” because they already know what other players on the court are doing. Steves said that comes from an off-the-court connection.
“Not only have we played together for four years,” Steves said. “We’ve been best friends for four years.”
That group is supplemented by even more seniors, some of whom have ample varsity experience.
Hayden said senior Hunter Kelchner made big strides in the offseason, adding that he’s optimistic the 6-foot-5 big man can fill the shoes left by recent graduate Zach Labine, the team’s leading scorer last season. Kelchner averaged just shy of six points per game last season and cracked double figures three times.
Skyler McDonald, a broadly built, 6-5 post, adds some depth down low even though the senior has limited varsity experience. Hayden said McDonald will likely see solid varsity minutes after big improvements over the summer.
With so many seniors with various skill-sets, Hayden said it’s harder to see underclassmen breaking into the rotation, but a pair of young players will provide a lift on the defensive end.
Hayden called junior Ryan Kirby somebody who “works his butt off on defense” and said 6-4 sophomore Caleb Davis has shown plenty of potential.
Ultimately, Hayden said he’s happy with the depth the Warriors have, especially in the backcourt.
“It’s nice, because so often in the Southwestern League you really have to rely on your guard play,” Hayden said. “We’ve been able to really lean on these guys for the last two years and we’re looking forward to leaning on them this year, too.”