The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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January 3, 2013

Pioneer hopes break, Koontz’s return spur second-half run

ENID, Okla. — They haven’t won so far in 2012-13, but in Wednesday’s practice, the Pioneer boys basketball team might have seen its toughest challenge yet.

As the Mustangs took the ball up the floor, they were swarmed, evading, escaping and often falling victim to traps at full court, the opposite baseline and everywhere in between.

“Guys, possession means something,” the Mustangs’ 15th-year head coach, Brandon Gallagher, implored after a stretch of several straight turnovers. “Possession’s got to mean something to you.”

Pioneer, 0-6 as it enters its post-winter break schedule, struggled in    spots against Wednesday’s scout team.

Of course, that scout team was last year’s varsity, and was 6-1 on the way to a 26-3 finish and Pioneer’s 10th consecutive trip to the area tournament by this time last season. But comparisons between this year’s team and last year’s aren’t exactly fair, Gallagher said.

Pioneer has lost all five of last season’s starters, and this year’s top seven — the usual depth Gallagher plays to — is made up exclusively of sophomores after seniors Nick Denker and Aaron Chain and junior Blake Gabriel. Colby Koontz, a skilled, 6-foot-8 sophomore widely anticipated to be the Mustangs’ top threat after a productive freshman year, hasn’t seen the floor this season thanks to an elbow injury that also wiped out his summer offseason work.

“Last year, we were probably one of the top five or six teams in the whole state, so we’re just not as good as we were last year,” Gallagher said. “Trying to compare anything to last year probably isn’t going to be good at this point.”

But Gallagher’s candor came with a caveat — the Mustangs are not a “bad team.”

“We have a chance to have a good year still,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re just bad, but we’re playing sophomores in some places, and having Colby back can’t hurt anything, so I don’t think that we have to be resigned that we’re just not going to be any good.”

There’s reason to believe in the coach’s faith.

The chemistry between Pioneer’s brand new starting five is slowly, but surely improving, the primary beneficiaries being Denker and Gabriel, both averaging a career high 12 points with the extra floor time.

“It’s better,” Denker said. “Obviously we haven’t had Colby the first part of the season, so we’re going to have to get used to playing with him, but we’re coming along a lot better than we were.”

Perhaps most importantly, Koontz, despite being absent on Wednesday with a minor illness, has returned to practice and will be available when Pioneer visits Drummond tonight.

“(Koontz) has a way of making the guys around him a little bit better,” Gallagher said. “Colby’s one of our better players, if not our best player. I can’t imagine him coming back hurting anything, but I don’t think it’s a cure-all that’s going to make it all better, either.”

“Now that what we’ve got the big guy (Koontz), we’ve got more opportunities to do everything, pass the ball around and find more people open,” Chain said. “It’s easier with him in.”

On Wednesday, the graduated Mustangs were playing the part of Drummond’s boys, whose high-pressure, up-tempo play has the Class A No. 9 Bulldogs, a Skeltur conference foe, at 13-0 this season, a staunch test of Pioneer’s hoped-for improvement.

After that, there is a Jan. 8 home debut of the reborn 2012-13 team against Class B Dover and a quick turnaround to the Wheat Capital tournament starting Jan. 10, by the end of which the Mustangs hope to be well on their way to their season objective.

“Area tournament would be a good goal for us,” Gabriel said. “We have a streak of going to the area tournament. That’s kind of our long-term goal. Once you get there, anything can happen.”

Gallagher was quick to remind, too that the first year of that streak, Pioneer entered the postseason with eight wins.

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