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M-CHS boys basketball looks to outrun opposition

M-CHS senior Easton Hartsoe breaks away from Monticello's Mason Atwood after a steal in a contest at Monticello High School.
Panthers flying high with 3-1 start

CORTEZ – Across the country, different state athletic associations are adopting the shot clock as the latest wrinkle in the high school basketball landscape. While the change won’t officially hit the Centennial State for a couple more years, M-CHS has gleaned a sneak preview of the changes to come with games against opposition in states – Arizona and Utah – where the 35-shot clock is already implemented.

For the Panther boys basketball team, the shot clock may get as much as use as a public pay phone.

M-CHS head coach Mike Hall discusses strategy with his team during a timeout in a contest at Monticello High School.
M-CHS junior Ben Hoffman goes up for a lay-up above two Monticello defenders in a contest at Monticello High School.
M-CHS senior Easton Hartsoe rises for a shot over Monticello's Aaron Gillette in a contest at Monticello High School.
M-CHS freshman Trey Hall crosses midcourt to set up a play in a contest at Monticello High School.
M-CHS junior Tay Wheat runs the floor on a fastbreak with teammate Ridge Hathale trailing the play in a contest at Monticello High School.
M-CHS junior Caidin Leonard fires a three-pointer in a contest at Monticello High School.

M-CHS continues their run-and-gun brand of basketball under tenth-year head coach Mike Hall, hoping to produce a return visit to the 3A state tournament. In the meantime, fans filling The Jungle this winter can brace themselves from whiplash as the Panthers fly from end to end, with a speedy group hoping to play disruptive defense and turn every steal into an opportunity to break.

So far, the results have been eye-catching – the Panthers shone in the Page, Arizona-hosted Antelope Canyon Classic – recording two wins against Arizona opposition – before toppling Monticello, 74-44, to improve to 3-1.

“I’m thrilled with how unselfish this team is,” said Hall after their most recent victory over the Buckaroos, “our boys move the ball quickly; they’ve really developed trust for each other.”

Ten different Panthers scored in the win, as M-CHS fields a roster still gaining experience playing at the varsity level.

Easton Hartsoe, one of three seniors on the roster, has become emblematic of this year’s group, taking on a new role as an interior presence for a guard-heavy Panther squad.

“We’re asking a lot of Easton, and he’s accepted the role,” added Hall of Hartsoe’s move to serve as last line of defense, despite giving up size at the position, “and he and our other seniors [Gael Garcia and Raul Soto] along with junior Caidin Leonard, have really stepped up as leaders.”

“With what we lost to graduation last year, we knew we’d have to make up for the size,” said Hartsoe, “and now we’re trying to bring out the best parts of each of our guys this year so we can work together well as a whole unit.”

Meanwhile, Leonard, working back from injury, presents a prolific deep threat for M-CHS. Classmate Tay Wheat has taken the primary point guard duties, while freshman Trey Hall has made an immediate impression in his first action at the high school level.

All told, a high-octane offense means that the Panthers need depth off the bench to continue to play at a breakneck speed. Wins over Monument Valley (AZ) (46-44) and Estrella Foothills (AZ) (64-44) required a gritty, full-team effort, while a loss to Rancho (NV) (84-37) reminded Hall and the Panthers of some of the battles they can look forward to in the 4A/3A Intermountain League beginning in January.

“The speed of the game is dramatically different,” said Hall of many of his players who are making the jump from junior varsity or middle school ball to now take on prominent roles with the varsity squad, “and valuing the importance of every defensive possession.”

In Wednesday’s win over Monticello, plenty of players seeing their first significant varsity action stepped up to the occasion. Hall led all scorers with 21 points, but for a Panther squad lacking tremendous length inside, it was the interior game that separated themselves from the Buckaroos. Garcia finished with nine points, joining sophomore Trace Hartsoe with eight and junior Ridge Hathale with seven. Wheat added seven, while Easton Hartsoe scored six in the balanced attack.

Incisive passing in the paint between the post players set up easy buckets for teammates, something which Hathale recognized as a critical element to the Panthers’ success. “We believe in each other,” said Hathale, “and it starts with good communication – and we know that we’re going to need to continue to do all the little things well – rebounding and hustling – so we can keep coming out with a ‘W’.”

“A lot of summer ball helped us come together as a team,” said Leonard of the team’s new dynamic, “and we’re a bunch of smart basketball players, so if we make mistakes, we’ll be able to adjust and learn from it.”

M-CHS tips off their home schedule against San Juan on Tuesday, Dec. 12 for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff against the Broncos. From there, the Panthers head to the Grand Valley for a trio of contests against Western Slope foes on Dec. 14-16 to head into the winter break. The Panthers-Broncos duel on Tuesday is available on local radio station KRTZ 98.7 FM and krtzradio.com – with the Panther girls kicking off the broadcast with a 6 p.m. contest against San Juan.