DENVER – Last year the East Lincoln High School boys basketball team found themselves just one win away from the western regional final in head coach Jon Hancock’s first season at the helm of the program.
“I think we learned a lot from last season and our run through the playoffs because we played in a lot of big games, and now we know the type of intensity that it takes to get there and win those games,” Hancock said. “We also know that we have to be a little bit better, and we have a lot of players back from last year’s team so we just have to find little ways to try and get better each and every day. Ultimately, we know that we’re going to have to be at our best to compete with the top teams later on in the season if we’re fortunate enough to advance that far, so we’re trying to improve one day at a time while keeping an eye on the big picture.”
The Mustangs return four seniors who experienced the heartbreak of coming up short in the playoffs last season. The disappointment of that 10-point loss on the road at Forest Hills, which went on to win the state championship, quickly turned into motivation during the offseason.
“A couple of us seniors were back in the gym the very next day because it’s all about taking that next step after we got so close last year,” senior guard Ben Zirkle said.
“Last year’s success just set us in a different mindset because now we know that we were good enough to go that far, and could have gone farther, but some things just didn’t go our way,” senior wing Sidney Dollar added. “Everyone has been working in the offseason so that we can get back to that point this season and hopefully beyond that, but for right now we’re focused on dominating the conference and winning every game in front of us so that we can have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.”
Fellow senior Allden Horne echoed Dollar’s sentiments about the importance of not losing focus during the regular season because every win matters in determining who gets to play in the comforts of their home gym throughout the playoffs.
“Coach Hancock has told us that it’s going to come down to one of those big games again, and we want to play that game at East Lincoln this year,” Horne said. “Having to travel up there to Forest Hills last season played a role in the outcome of that game, so we want to play those big games at home this season, and that starts with taking care of our non-conference schedule and getting the big wins that we need early in the season. We’ve been working hard all summer just to get ready for those moments because this is our last year.”
Dollar, who recently committed to play his collegiate basketball at Lees-McRae, as well as Horne and Zirkle have been playing together since they were all in the fourth grade, while John Bean, the team’s fourth senior, joined the group during their freshman year at East Lincoln. Knowing this will be their last ride together as teammates has added another level of motivation ahead of their senior season.
“We all know that this is our last year playing together, so we’ve just got to leave everything we have on the court every single game because no one wants to let the other guys down,” Dollar said.
“This is our last chance together to do something meaningful, so it’s all or nothing this season,” Bean added.
The expectations are always high at East Lincoln, where the boys basketball team played for the state championship in 2014 and 2015. Hancock had high expectations when he left Mallard Creek for the East Lincoln job last year, and his expectations are just as lofty heading into this season.
“I expected us to be good, and I expected us to win the conference championship, which we did,” Hancock said. “I’m not going to lie, I expect us to be good again this year. We have high expectations at East Lincoln, and that’s why I’m here. I like those expectations because I want to be the head of a program that feels like they can be among the very best in the state.”
The Mustangs won 25 games last season and lost just once to a conference opponent en route to claiming the regular season conference championship. East Lincoln tallied three playoff victories before falling 64-54 on the road against the eventual state champions from Forest Hills.