Lakota West High School boys basketball coach Jim Leon is relying on the youth of six sophomores to fill his roster, but even with three of them starting, he sees this as the most competitive squad he’s put together in three seasons with the Firebirds.
Leon is hoping that bodes well for a more competitive district rivalry game at Lakota East (5-2, 4-1 Greater Miami Conference) on Friday.
The past two years at East, the Firebirds have suffered a pair of lopsided losses by 20 points or more. West (6-4, 4-2 GMC) enters this matchup against the two-time defending conference champions with two of the GMC’s top five scorers and the top rebounder.
“I think we match up better than last year when they had that big guy (6-foot-7 forward Alex Mangold) and Fuhrmann inside,” Leon said. “I think they’re still stronger, and Nate (Johnson) has something to do with that. ... This is the best matchup we’ve had with them. Their experience of winning is something we have to contend with. They are a very confident team. Both games we played there (in 2018-19 and 2019-20) they came out confident, wanting shots, they wanted it more and we kind of backed off.
“They had some COVID issues so they haven’t played a lot, but they’ve gotten guys back and now are getting in shape, so I still feel like they are the team to beat in the league, but I think we can make it competitive.”
West has one of the better offenses in the conference, but the defense doesn’t yet complement it, in large part because of inexperience and a lack of size, Leon said.
Sophomore Nathan Dudukovich, who played off the bench as a freshman, leads the team with 20.9 points per game, ranking second in the GMC only behind Mason’s Trey Killens. East’s Johnson follows with 19.6 points per game, and West senior Kelvin Turner is right behind at 19.4.
Leon said Dudukovich and Turner have stepped up to replace the production lost with the graduation of Julian Mackey and Carter Combs, who combined to account for almost 60 percent of the points last year.
“Sean Van Winkle, who used to coach here (prior to 2014), calls them ‘fire and ice,’” Leon said. “They’ve done a really nice job together.”
Dudukovich, whose parents both played at Butler University, has a “bright future” but already has matured into a strong leader, according to Leon. Turner, a solid shooting guard, played for West as a sophomore two years ago but transferred to Princeton last season and came back ready to prove himself.
Senior forward Brady Weber leads the GMC in rebounding with 10.2 boards per game, and no one else in the conference is averaging more than 6.8 rebounds.
“He’s a three-year starter so since I’ve been a head coach, he’s been a part of things,” Leon said. “He’s a captain, leader, great role model and he’s only 6-(foot)-4 so to lead the league in rebounds, that just shows his determination and hustle. I can’t say enough about Brady. I’m already feeling sad knowing in a month or so I’ve got to say goodbye. To have these six sophomores and then Brady’s leadership, it’s been a perfect match for us.”
The Firebirds also feature sophomore forward Jason Lavender and sophomore point guard Trent Lloyd, who has missed the last six games because of a hip injury. Leon said they’ve replaced Lloyd by committee for now but once he’s back, West will be “even better.”
Lavender and Weber work well together inside to combat bigger teams. Malachi Irby and Milton Wambugu round out the senior class, and the other three sophomores are Josh Fussell, Ben Minich and Christopher Barber.
“Our freshman team went 22-0 last year, so we brought up five more guys to join (Dudukovich) and these young guys are good,” Leon said. “They are a special group. We’re getting them valuable experience right now. Hopefully the next couple years we can be pretty good.”
West went 8-8 last year but a run at the end of the season to reach a district final. Leon said considering the number of sophomores on his team this year, the Firebirds “are a little ahead of the game” in terms of where he thought they would be as he continues his rebuild after a 4-19 finish in 2017-18 before he came on board.
“I’m not sure where we’re going,” Leon said. “It’s a tough schedule, really tough league. Going in, I felt if we finished .500 I’d be happy, but for the first time we’re actually in the mix (in the GMC) and if we could get a win Friday night, that would be huge. It’s going to be a challenge, but hopefully we have a chance to be a little better than we thought.”
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