MONUMENT - It’s hard to imagine the Lewis-Palmer boys basketball team being better than last year’s squad that won 27 consecutive games on its way to winning the Class 4A state championship.
But there’s every reason to believe this group of Rangers have all the right stuff to be a serious contender once again.
“We’ve really been working hard this preseason, and if we keep working hard and set a new goal every day I love our chances,” said senior 6-6 swingman Justin Smith.
Smith, who signed with Idaho State earlier this month, scored the winning basket in last winter’s state championship game against Sierra. He is joined this season by two other returning starters - senior 6-6 swingman Jordan Scott and senior point guard Tyler Owens.
“I have to find ways to get the ball to Justin and Jordan because they’re our marquee players,” said Owens, who averaged 5.4 points and 3.8 assists last season.
Owens and company open the season tomorrow night in Grand Junction when they play Palisade in the Warrior Classic at Central High School. That is followed by games against Grand Junction on Friday and Fruita Monument on Saturday.
“Teams are definitely going to come after us,” Owens said.
The biggest - literally - difference between this year and last year is the loss of 6-foot-10 center Josh Scott. The Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year averaged a whopping 28.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, while creating a presence in the middle unmatched by any team in the Centennial state. He led the Rangers to three consecutive Final Fours (L-P has gone to four straight overall).
Scott is now starting for the University of Colorado. On Nov. 25, many of his former teammates (current Lewis-Palmer players) travelled to Boulder to watch Scott score a game-high 20 points and pull down seven rebounds in the No. 23 ranked Buffaloes’ 89-74 victory over Air Force.
“It’s really cool,” said Jordan Scott, who averaged 12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. “Being able to play with him for three years and seeing how that translates to college basketball is really exciting. Especially since he’s doing really well.”
The feeling among the Rangers’ players is that the this year’s team will be more balanced, forcing other teams to not focus on stopping one player.
“This year we have a lot of guys who can score,” said Smith, who averaged 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds. “They can step up and hit shots and get to the rim. I think we’re pretty well rounded. If they take out one guy they still have to worry about the other guys out there.”
Among other key players are junior guard Chase Stone, senior forward Dylan Tucker and senior guard Logan Jones.
It is yet to be determined whether Lewis-Palmer will dominate opponents in the same manner as last season, when the average margin of victory was 28 points. It all starts with defense, according to Rangers coach Russ McKinstry.
“We’re going to have to be better from the shoulders up,” McKinstry said. “Last year we had the privilege of Josh who was correcting mistakes we made, so that allowed us to be over aggressive. We’re going to be doing a lot of the same thing, but we’re going to be a little more solid from the shoulders on up, meaning we’re going to have to think angles a little better. We’re going to have to pressure the ball and trap a little smarter.”
McKinstry believes his team can be just as lethal offensively.
“We think Jordan and Justin are 15 to 20 points, with Tyler Owens being around the 10 to 12 points per game,” he said. “It might not be a year where we beat people by 30 every night, but we still feel like we have a lot of weapons. Whether we win by one or 30, our mentality is that we’re going to win in the defensive end, anyway.”
Lewis-Palmer opens its home schedule next week with games against Pueblo West on Dec. 4 and Broomfield on Dec. 7. Broomfield defeated the Rangers in last year’s season opener, 67-65.