Boys Basketball: Defending champion Overland, many other Aurora teams aim high in 2015-16

Cherokee Trail boys basketball
From left, Ronnie Barfield, Jaizec Lottie, KJ Sapp and David Thornton are determined to help the Cherokee Trail High School boys basketball team reach its potential in the 2015-16 season. The Cougars are just one of several Aurora teams, including defending Class 5A state champion Overland High School, with high expectations for the new campaign, which opened Dec. 1. (Photo by Sara Hertwig/Aurora Sentinel).

A year later, “OVE” remains in full effect.

Last season’s mantra for the Overland boys basketball team — “Overland Vs. Everybody” — helped drive the Trailblazers to win the first Class 5A state championship in school history.

“OVE” becomes even more important in the 2015 season when all of 5A — including a number of other talented Aurora teams — takes aim at unseating Overland in the 2015-16 season.

“We’re going to defend ourselves like state champions do,” said senior Alijah Halliburton, one of the holdovers for coach Danny Fisher’s Trailblazers. “Everybody thinks it’s the championship game when they play us, so we’re going to have to work even harder.”

Led by recent Indiana University signee and 6-foot-10 star center De’Ron Davis, plus the energetic Halliburton and a backcourt featuring seniors Reggie Gibson and Jervae Robinson, the Trailblazers have the talent to repeat.

Fisher knows his toughest job will be preparing his team for the onslaught it will face each and every time it takes the floor this season.

Already worth the price of admission every time out, Davis has vowed to be “unguardable” this season, with an improved jump shot making it possible for him to markedly improve on his average of 16.3 points per game from last season (to go with 11.3 rebounds and 5.1 blocked shots).

The Trailblazers graduated size (Ryan Swan and King Grant-Perry) on the inside, meaning the tireless Halliburton will need to translate the shot of energy he provided off the bench last season into a full time role.

Gibson blossomed into a double-digit scorer last season and Robinson — a two-year varsity player at Overland before he and fellow senior Tyler Stephenson spent last season at a prep school in Oklahoma — returns with a more aggressive nature.

Aurora is also full of many hungry teams, including several that know Overland very well as members of the Centennial League. The preseason Associated Press Class 5A media poll put five city teams in the top 10 in Overland (No. 1), Rangeview (tied for No. 5), Regis Jesuit (No. 7), Eaglecrest (No. 8) and Cherokee Trail (No. 9).

Standout seniors Ronnie Barfield and David Thornton hope to finally lead Cherokee Trail to fulfill the long promise of its talent base.

The junior backcourt Jaizec Lottie and KJ Sapp will help a lot toward that end, especially as coach Morgan Gregory’s Cougars seek to improve their execution to add to their athleticism. The addition of junior Ian Kelly, a big body on the interior that Cherokee Trail hasn’t had in awhile, looks to be key.

Gregory has reminded his talent group — at least as currently constructed — that this is its last chance to do something special.

“We’re not that young team anymore that people say ‘they are going to be good in a year or two,'” Gregory said. “That year is now and they understand that. There’s a sense of urgency. Three or four of our key kids are noticeably different players and we’ll have to see how that plays out.”

Led by junior Colbey Ross, Eaglecrest — a semifinal team last season — again has the look of an elite team, as coach John Olander’s Raptors are stocked with talented guards plus some improving big men.

Ross had a huge sophomore season with a team-high average of 17.3 points per game and while Olander expects him to continue to be an offensive force, he needs him to take a leadership role on a team that graduated some large personalities in Ross’ brother Elijah, plus Blend Avdili and Peter Anderson.

“One of our biggest focuses with Colbey is how do you lead and bring and inexperienced team along,” Olander said. “It’s not as much as you score, it’s how do you lead them and are they going to believe in you…He expects everybody to play as hard as he does and that’s where the leadership comes in.”

Ross showed plenty of leadership in the semifinals last season when he scored 27 points against ThunderRidge to keep the Raptors in the game when others struggled.

Sophomore Victor Garnes had an outstanding football season and could also break out in his varsity debut season, while Xaiv’ion Jackson is another youngster with promise in the Raptors’ backcourt. The 6-4 Bokol started for the majority of last season and now gets his chance to be more of a focal point than a complimentary player.

Rangeview has been the team that’s just been on the cusp of a run to the Final Four, where coach Shawn Palmer’s program last appeared in 2011-12.

The Raiders have rare depth and feature a formidable trio in seniors Tyrei Randall and EJ Reed and junior Elijah Blake. With great length and size at 6-5, Randall is a prime time defender and is as difficult to keep from getting to the rim as he is to keep up with at the 3-point line, which should make him one of Aurora’s most explosive players.

Blake’s confidence skyrocketed in the postseason last year and he already counts a scholarship offer on Northern Colorado to build on. Blake and seniors Kris Hollins and Jalen Guidry and junior Matthew Johnson give Palmer the personnel he needs to play aggressive defense for long stretches of games and overcome the foul trouble that sometimes comes from that style.

“We still want to run and have the same transition mindset that we’ve had the last few years,” Palmer said. “We had a talented group last year, but we weren’t a very good defensive team throughout the whole year. We were inconsistent on that end. This year, we have a tougher-minded group and the early signs are showing them really committing to the defensive side of the ball.”

Reed’s athleticism and 6-foot-8 wing span make him a unique challenge inside.

Regis Jesuit graduated nine seniors from last season’s 23-3 squad, but coach Ken Shaw has a new group full of height and shooting ability that is ready to rise to the forefront led by senior Geoff Kelly.

One of the best leaders Shaw said he has ever had in more than three decades of coaching, the 6-6 Kelly is set to expand on his averages of 8.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game from last season.

Senior Marc Reininger, a 6-9 post player who has improved greatly, plus junior point guard Connor Hobbs are the other players with varsity experience who return, but a talented group of young players including shooter Michael Wambsganss,

“A lot of people look at a team like us with only three guys back and nine seniors graduated that this would be a rebuilding year,” Shaw said. “This is not going to be a rebuilding year. We filled in a lot of slots very well and we played a ton of games over the summer, so it was almost like a full season. We’ll be ready to go.”

Smoky Hill carries perhaps the most intrigue coming into the season, with a new coach in Anthony Hardin and a slew of young talent.

Freshman Kenny Foster — younger brother of former Valor Christian star Chase Foster — is a dynamic talent who should be a focal point on both ends. The Buffs have size in a 6-7 sophomore rim protector Will Becker and 6-7 transfer John Harge and shooting from junior Kyle Colen and sophomore Muu Mukkawill.

“We’re very excited, we have some young guys that are talented,” said Hardin, who earned a state championship ring as an assistant with Overland last season.

“They are young, but they play a lot of basketball, some of them 150 games a year,” he added. “So they are 14, 15 and 16 years old, but they are 45 in basketball years. We’ll be patient early, but we expect things to be done the right way.”

Coach Ian Calvert’s Aurora Central team lost some size when 6-9 Daytone Jennings transferred to Denver East, but gained an other potentially explosive player with the arrival of senior Kelsey Williams from Hinkley.

Williams, the Thunderbirds’ leading scorer last season at 15.8 points per game, got a medical hardship waiver and moved over to join the Trojans, who already have two outstanding scorers in seniors Ladarius Thomas (16.1 ppg) and Elijah Coleman (14.0 ppg).

Coleman signed with Black Hills State before the season and appears primed for a big season, while Thomas continues to draw interest from college programs due to his ability to affect the game in wide variety of ways.

Senior CJ Porter is another holdover and Calvert is eager to see what senior Usman Koromah, who he believes may be the most athletic player on his roster, will contribute.

“I have a great group of kids who I don’t have to worry about this season,” Calvert said. “We’re going to try to maximize what we’ve got and have a really special season.”

Grandview and Vista PEAK feel better in the second years under head coaches Michael Rogers and Gary Childress, while Jason Dixon has changed Gateway’s look.

Rogers is optimistic that the Wolves can be strong for at least the next two seasons thanks to the point guard-big man combination of juniors LeChaun Duhart and Gage Prim.

Duhart broke his hand during the league season a year ago, but has returned to health and is a unflappable ballhandler with the ability to get to the basket and shoot from distance, while Prim — who is still on the mend from a broken hand suffered during the football season — is a difference maker in the paint a 6-5.

Childress feels a lot further ahead this season due to the time in the fall he had with the Bison, though he still managed to guide the program to the Colorado 7 championship in his first season at the helm.

Vista PEAK has the personnel to play the uptempo style Childress favors and experience comes largely from senior Alex Hawkins and junior Dylan Holt, while sophomore Te’Rae Johnson got a good deal of playing time last season as well.

The Bison will get a boost early in league play when Aurora Central transfer Marquise Johnson is eligible after sitting out half the season.

“Obviously we were pleased to be able to repeat as the Colorado 7 champions, but we certainly have bigger goals than that,” Childress said. “Losing out in the first round (of the 4A playoffs) was a huge disappointment, so our goal is definitely to go further.”

Dixon, a 1991 Aurora Central graduate who had a long playing career overseas, takes over the Gateway program after serving as an assistant coach last season.

He hopes to overcome the frustration he senses from the Olys’ recent struggles and develop the large group of seniors on his roster, highlighted by Dag Gebretsadik and Odofile Odifu.

“I think definitely everybody wants to make it to the playoffs,” Dixon said. “I asked every senior what their personal goals are and they are so fed up with losing. They would all say win a state championship, but we’re just going to try to put some wins together and see what happens.”

Led by senior guards Solomon Proctor and Kenneth Powell, Hinkley has pieces in place to compete in the EMAC after a 10-win season a year ago.

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel


Aurora players to watch: Ronnie Barfield, 6-3, F, sr., Cherokee Trail; Will Becker, 6-7, C, soph., Smoky Hill; Elijah Blake, 6-1, G, jr., Rangeview; Nate Bokol, 6-4, F/C, jr., Eaglecrest; Elijah Coleman, 6-2, F, sr., Aurora Central; Kyle Colen, 5-10, G, jr., Smoky Hill; De’Ron Davis, 6-10, C, sr., Overland; LeChaun Duhart, G, jr., Grandview; Kenny Foster, 6-3, F, fr., Smoky Hill; Victor Garnes, 6-0, G, soph., Eaglecrest;  Dag Gebretsadik, 6-3, F/G, sr., Gateway; Reggie Gibson, 5-10, G, sr., Overland; Jalen Guidry, 5-11, G, sr., Rangeview; Alijah Halliburton, 6-2, F, sr., Overland; John Harge, 6-7, F/C, soph., Smoky Hill; Alex Hawkins, 5-10, G, sr., Vista PEAK; Connor Hobbs, 5-9, G, jr., Regis Jesuit; Kris Hollins, 6-2, F, sr., Rangeview; Dylan Holt, 6-4, F, jr., Vista PEAK; Xaiv’ion Jackson, 5-9, G, soph., Eaglecrest; Marquise Johnson, 5-10, G, jr., Vista PEAK; Matthew Johnson, 6-1, G, jr., Rangeview; Te’Rae Johnson, 6-0, G/F, soph., Vista PEAK; Geoff Kelly, 6-6, F, sr., Regis Jesuit; Jaizec Lottie, 6-0, G, jr., Cherokee Trail; Mue Muwwakkil, 6-0, G, soph., Smoky Hill; Odofile Odifu, 6-4, F/C, sr., Gateway; Ryan Ongala, 6-6, C, soph., Rangeview; CJ Porter, 6-2, F, sr., Aurora Central; Kenneth Powell, 5-10, G, sr., Hinkley; Gage Prim, 6-5, C, jr., Grandview; Solomon Proctor, 5-10, G, sr., Hinkley; Tyrei Randall, 6-5, G, sr., Rangeview; EJ Reed, 6-4, F, sr., Rangeview; Marc Reininger, 6-9, C, sr., Regis Jesuit; Jervae Robinson, 6-2, G, sr., Overland; Colbey Ross, 5-11, G, jr., Eaglecrest; KJ Sapp, 5-7, G, jr., Cherokee Trail; Ladarius Thomas, 6-1, G, sr., Aurora Central; Larry Thomas, 5-11, G, jr., Aurora Central; David Thornton, 6-4, F, sr., Cherokee Trail; Michael Wambsganss, 6-2, F, sr., Regis Jesuit; Kelsey Williams, 6-3, G, sr., Aurora Central