Mar 15, 2017 - By Scott Akanewich, Sports EditorCentral Wyoming College's men's basketball squad posted a 21-win season under rookie head coach Jack Nelson and advanced to the second round of the Region IX tournament.
Nobody knew what to expect from the Rustlers of Central Wyoming College this season as the men's basketball squad took to the floor to begin practice back in October.
Least of all Jack Nelson.
The newly-minted Central head coach, in his first job as hoops boss, following years as an assistant, had taken over the program later in the year than he would have liked and didn't have much time to prepare his new team before the season began.
However, despite some early bumps in the road, Nelson and his squad came together as the season progressed, getting better and better, with the fruit of their labors being a 21-9 record and advancement to the second round of the Region IX tournament.
Looking back now at season's end after all the trials and tribulations, Nelson said he entered his maiden voyage as a head coach with plenty of ambition, but without preconceived notions.
"I really tried to avoid having any expectations as far as wins and losses go," he said. "Obviously, we wanted to win every game, and that's what we work hard to do, but my biggest hope and expectation was we would be a team that improved on a daily basis and was playing its best basketball at the end of the season."
Suffice it to say, that's exactly what happened.
Central won nine of its final 10 game, before bowing out of the Region IX tourney with a season-ending defeat to Lamar Community College. The only other loss during the final stretch of the season an 89-82 home overtime thriller against eventual regional champion Gillette College.
Despite the fact it was his first time as the head hoops man in charge, Nelson certainly used his long list of past influences to lean on for advice.
"It's definitely a different perspective to be making decisions as the head coach," said Nelson. "I don't know that I ever thought about it in terms of pressure, though. I still relied on my mentors as far as bouncing thoughts and ideas off of them. At the end of the day, I just tried to always be very well- prepared and do whatever I thought was best for our program and the kids in our program."
Part of the learning curve for Nelson and his players was a four-game losing streak the club suffered in November, which saw their record drop to 3-5. But, Nelson said, everything happens for a reason, with the dividends of short-term suffering being long-term gain.
"The losing streak was a critical part of our season," said Nelson. "Unfortunately, you have to go through some tough times to really learn and develop. I truly believe we were a tougher team having gone through that period of our season, and I'm really proud of our guys for continuing to fight and work to get better. At the time I didn't know how we would react to it, but looking back, I think it made us a better team."
The win which brought the Rustlers out of their malaise was 68-59 victory on Nov. 26 against Casper College, a club which traditionally has had Central's number over the years. Freshman Alihan Demir led Central with 18 points, along with 12 from fellow frosh Devon Colley and another 10 from Marcus Nolan, the side's lone sophomore.
In fact,in addition to that win over the Thunderbirds at a Thanksgiving weekend tournament, the Rustlers also swept the season series of conference battles between the teams, which was gratifying for Nelson and his players.
"For me, sweeping Casper was great. I have known the coaches at Casper for a long time and really respect them and the job they do year in and year out," said Nelson. "For our guys, though, it was a case of just preparing and executing our game plan. Most of our guys probably didn't know the history of Casper or what the outcomes of previous seasons have been. Winning any college basketball game is difficult, so I hope we embraced and enjoyed all of the wins."
Central's final contest before the Christmas break saw them pay a visit to defending National Junior College Athletics Association champions Salt Lake Community College and to say the 86-69 victory was a turning point for the Rustlers' season would be an understatement.
On this occasion, another pair of freshmen contributed mightily, as big man Irshaad Hunte poured in 28 points, along with 23 from Nick Brannon.
However, according to Nelson, the previous win against Casper was even more critical to developing his squad's psyche, due to the fact it came only 24 hours after a tough defeat to Dawson Community College.
"The win over Salt Lake was a great moment for us, and I think it showed our guys how good we could be," said Nelson.
"But, I think the more critical moment for our team may have been the loss to Dawson and then following that up with a win against Casper. I really feel like that was the turning point of our season and cemented our guys' belief in what we were doing."
Following the four-game losing streak, Central immediately proceeded to win eight consecutive contests, a testament to the team's work ethic, passion and desire to improve, he said.
"I wish I could tell you our coaching staff figured out some magical secret or the perfect play, but the true answer is we continued to trust the process of improving as a team," said Nelson. "Our guys kept believing and working hard. If you do those things and play the right way, then the winning should take care of itself."
A critical factor in Central's synergy was a band-of-brothers mentality, with the players relying on and fighting for one another. It was born out on the stat sheet game after game, as offensive contributions were evenly spread up and down the roster on a regular basis.
The Rustlers made a habit of getting balanced scoring, routinely having four or five players in double-figure scoring, never relying on one or two guys to carry the offensive load.
Indeed, at the end of the season, four Rustlers averaged in doubles, with Hunte leading the way at 16 points per game, followed by Demir (13.6), point guard Colley (10.5) and former Riverton Wolverine and Wyoming High School Player of the Year Chris Quayle (10.4).
Just missing out on joining the 10-plus scoring party were Nolan, at 9.6 points and Brannon, with 9.4.
For Nelson, the togetherness on the offensive end of the floor translated to toughness on defense, which yielded a bountiful harvest of success.
"It's a tale of two sides of the ball to be honest," said Nelson. "On the offensive end of the floor, I truly think our balance and our unselfishness was the key to our success, but I think by the end of the season our team's identity was on the defensive end of the floor. We turned into a tough, defensive-minded team, which in my opinion, is what allowed us to win close games toward the end of the year."
Rounding out the Rustlers' bench were a capable contingent of role players, who contributed quality minutes all season long, including Colter Galante, Lake Del Mar, Drew Switzer, Ronnie Barfield Jr. and Grady Haeffelin, providing Nelson with the kind of squad depth which enabled him to rotate players in and out of the lineup, keeping players fresh throughout a long, grueling season.
The fact his charges were willing to go to war for each other is an intangible which can't be valued enough, said Nelson.
"I think it makes a huge difference," he said. "When a group of people comes together and are working for one goal and they're playing for a purpose, then that team is truly dangerous and capable of beating anyone."
Nelson acknowledged the fact although success came this season, there's no guarantee for the future, but risk of failure can be mitigated with the proper blueprint, not the least of which are not only the players who wear the Orange-and-Black, but those who offer support, he said.
"Every season is unique and has to be treated as such, but obviously the goal is to find that consistency and be in position to win the region year in and year out," said Nelson.
"I think for that to happen, it's going to come down to the type of people that are in our program. We have great support administratively and within the community. Coach (Pat) Rafferty did a phenomenal job of leaving us with kids that were good students, talented players and more importantly, great people. We have to find a way to add those same type of kids and I have no doubt we can find that consistency we're looking for."
So, now that all is said and done and he's no longer a rookie head coach, what will Nelson bring with him from this season, the first on what he hopes will be a long, successful basketball journey?
"I'm not sure I can take away just one thing," said Nelson. "If I had to pick one thing, it's just being sure in the things I believe make a successful program and doing everything possible to follow those beliefs and leading the program in that direction."
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