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San Juan Basin boys basketball preview: Dove Creek defends title

Dove Creek’s Aiden Chadd brings the ball up the court in a contest against Monticello at DCHS last year. (Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)
Mancos and Dolores look to chase down Dove Creek

When the basketball season tips off this week in Southwest Colorado, fans will get a first look at the teams that will shake up the San Juan Basin League throughout the winter.

In the boys SJBL title race, Dove Creek looks to continue its recent success after winning the league a season ago. Mancos will enter the fray with plenty of returning talent, not only from last year’s runner-up squad, but also a significant portion of their roster making the transition from the gridiron after winning the program’s first state football title.

Dolores aims to continue their growth under third-year head coach Joel Balderrama, while the schools from San Miguel and Ouray counties look to break through in a league that has been dominated by teams from Montezuma and Dolores counties.

Dove Creek looks to next wave of talent

After another fantastic year for Dove Creek, one in which the boys team collected a record of 16-7 and advanced to the round of 16 in the 1A state tournament, the Bulldogs will turn to a number of emerging stars to take the helm in 2023-24.

The top four scorers from that squad, including all-state performer Kade Hankins, departed with the graduating class, meaning the ‘Dogs will find their points coming from some new sources. A trio of returning Bulldogs saw the floor in every game last year, including the team’s top returning scorer, junior Sheldon Gardner.

Gardner also was the team’s second-leading rebounder, and will look to help provide a presence in the paint alongside senior Gage Buffington.

Senior Aiden Chadd looks to help operate the Dove Creek backcourt as one of two seniors on the roster under first-year head coach Ian MacLaren, while a number of sophomores and juniors will get their first significant varsity minutes.

A busy preholiday schedule will give the ‘Dogs plenty of opportunities to establish their chemistry on the court before league play officially begins in January. Dove Creek travels to the San Luis Valley to open the season against Ignacio in the Centauri-hosted Mountain Top Tournament on Nov. 30. Their three contests in La Jara precede a trip to Rangely on Dec. 8-9 and the annual Bulldog Classic on Dec. 15-16, which will serve as the home opener for Dove Creek.

Mancos hopes to continue winning ways

Following the program’s sixth consecutive winning season, Mancos looks to once again be a major factor in the SJBL title race this year.

The Jays, under third-year head coach Dusty Veach, return the entire roster from their 17-6 campaign and trip to the round of 16 in the 2A state tournament.

The return of senior Kail Wayman, who missed the 2022-23 winter because of injury, looks to bolster a talented returning core of Bluejays. Senior Brian Veach and junior Kaiden Wyatt led the team in scoring a year ago, with Veach operating the perimeter while Wyatt emerged as one of the top post players in the league.

Seniors Andrew Jaime and Chris Medina also enjoyed successful junior seasons for a Bluejays squad that enjoyed pressuring opposition into a high tempo. Sophomores Darren Daves and Cory Carver were immediately impactful for Veach’s group, and will look to contribute to a balanced Mancos offense.

With the state football run pushing the Bluejays start date back a couple of weeks, Mancos will get their regular season started later than any other program in the area – kicking off their slate over the weekend of Dec. 7-9 in Meeker. Road contests against Ignacio (Dec. 14), Del Norte (Dec. 16), and Cedaredge (Dec. 19) cap the 2023 portion of the schedule.

Dolores leans on a youth movement

Much like Dove Creek, Dolores’ boys team was hit hard by graduation, meaning that a number of Bears will step into roles with plenty of minutes for a team looking to improve on their two-win campaign from a year ago.

The Bears have several key returners looking to guide the way for the rising varsity players, with senior Ty Gaddis joining junior Tray Traweek as leaders that Balderrama will turn to as the Bears gain experience this winter.

Sophomore Michael Rantz gained more varsity time with each passing week of his freshman season, and appears poised to follow up a breakout football season as a major contributor in the Bears offense this winter.

The Bears hope that the return of seniors Jonathan Purkat and Mark Palate – both of whom missed much of their junior campaigns – will provide a big scoring boost for the Bears this season.

Dolores (0-1) opened their season on Tuesday, Nov. 28 in a nonleague contest against Ouray (1-0) showing plenty of moxie against the Trojans before dropping their home opener.

The Bears will continue their early season action when they travel to the San Luis Valley for the Sangre de Cristo Shootout Nov. 30- Dec. 2. From there, the Bears will head to Rangely Dec. 8-9, before road contests against Monticello and Creede lead Dolores into the holiday break.

Telluride, Nucla look to challenge front-runners

The rest of the SJBL includes a pair of teams returning almost their entire rosters from last year, hoping to make noise in league play.

Telluride (12-9) finished third in 2022-23, and return with double-figure scoring seniors Townes Merritt and Grayson Berry to lead the way.

Meanwhile, Nucla enjoyed one of the program’s best seasons in over 15 years last season (8-11) behind then-freshman Brycen Rummel and rising senior Steele Arnold, who finished among the league leaders in scoring, while the Mustangs bring back their entire roster as complementary scoring.

Ridgway (5-11) and Ouray (9-12) look to factor into the race this season as well, as San Juan Basin League play begins in earnest when the teams return from the winter intermission, leading up to the district tournament over the weekend of Feb. 22-24.