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The optimism in Bob Barnett's voice was telling.
While just about every boys basketball coach has a spring in his step come November, Hampshire's ninth-year coach sounded more energized than I've ever heard him during an interview for the annual season preview.
This was notable because Barnett's as straight a shooter as you'll find. The guy should have a special pocket built into his shirt sleeve because that's where he wears his heart most of the time. If Barnett was optimistic, he had reason.
From an outside perspective you could understand why to a large degree. Hampshire returned junior Tyler Watzlawick, a 6-foot-7 center entering his third full year on the varsity. Watzlawick is so dedicated to basketball he decided to forgo playing football to concentrate on hoops. He's a nice piece to build around, especially since he spent the summer developing a consistent 17-foot jump shot.
But "Watz" has help in the paint in the form of 6-foot-6 sophomore Shane Hernandez, who was elevated to Hampshire's varsity midway through his freshman year. One of his school's better young athletes, Hernandez got his feet wet last year by playing about four minutes each half.
Other bright spots included some talented guards young guards like junior Brock Ralphs and sophomore Tyler Crater, not to mention two hardworking senior guards off last year's junior varsity team: Pat Azizi and David Wilson.
That core is supported by active sixth man Pat Dumoulin and guards Ryan Yoder and Justin Bemos
However, talent wasn't the only reason Barnett was so stoked. In fact, it had far more to do with attitude.
"We were playing at Marengo over the summer at a shootout," Barnett said. "It was halftime and I think we had 11 guys there. I was showing them something we were doing that I didn't like and was walking them through it.
"I looked up and every set of eyes were looking right at me. A lot of times you get kids looking at the ground, kids looking at each other. But every set of eyes was looking at me. Right then I said, 'I've just fallen in love with every single one of you guys.'
"They were all looking at me, willing to learn, willing to take constructive criticism and move on. That's this group. I mean, they're nice kids. They work hard, they want to learn, they're attentive. And they're good students. You just can't say enough about them."
The Whips dropped their first two games of the season, largely because they were stung by the loss of Ralphs in the season opener to a knee injury. It was a tough blow considering Barnett had projected the guard to be Hampshire's leading or second-leading scorer this season.
Ralphs also guarded the opponent's biggest guard, so the job of replacing him in the starting lineup fell to Wilson.
"He's doing pretty solid," Watzlawick said of Wilson "He's our defensive stopper, and he's really helped us out so far by locking down the other team's best player when we play man to man."
The Whips proceeded to reel off 6 straight wins, highlighted by consecutive Big Northern crossover wins over Rockford Lutheran (10-5), Winnebago (9-6) and Byron (13-3). Back-to-back losses at the DeKalb Holiday Tournament to Rockford East and Chicago Vocational have since been followed by a 5-game win streak.
The Whip-Purs now sport a record of 11-4 overall, their best start since Barnett's first Hampshire squad opened the 2002-03 season 10-1. Defensively, this team allows only 47.3 points per game, third best out of 15 area teams. The balanced offense is led by Watzlawick (14.7 ppg.), Azizi (10.6), Hernandez (10.1), and Crater (8.6)
"This team plays like a team and doesn't care who scores," Watzlawick said. "We just want to win."
Speaking of winning, Barnett reiterated this week the goal of winning the Big Northern East in Hampshire's final tour before joining the Fox Valley Conference next season. To do so, the Whips have to weather the storm of Saturday's rivalry game at archrival Burlington Central (8-7, 4-0), the BNE co-leader.
You never know how it will play out in a rivalry game, but the Whips are clear favorites on paper. Central was beaten by both Winnebago and Byron, the latter by 46 points. Win on the road at Rocket Hill and Hampshire can all but assure itself a BNE title as a going-away present to itself.
Then come the playoffs. Hampshire will host a Class 3A regional this season, one that will include Burlington Central, Crystal Lake Central (12-3) and Marmion (8-6). Barnett said he'd like to see this young group emerge from that tough regional if for no other reason so they can experience the atmosphere of a sectional tournament.
And while the prospects for this team seem bright in 2011-12 considering Ralphs will return to a lineup that will still feature Watzlawick, Hernandez and Crater, nothing is guaranteed.
"The way we put it over the summer was that, yes, we're going to be OK to good this year and next year we're going to be even that much better," Barnett said. "But this is something I also told the kids at the beginning of the year: You can't be thinking about next year because you don't know what's going to happen. Then Brock went down.
"So what happens next year if Watz goes down with a knee or Shane or Brock again or anybody? You can't think, 'Oh next year's going to be the year.' Anything could happen. We're just really focused on this year."
That kind of focus from a talented, bright-eyed young team should be enough to keep any Hampshire supporter optimistic. The coach, too.
"It's just fun to be around them," Barnett added. "There have been years where it's just been a chore and you wonder why the heck you're doing this still, but this team has kind of rejuvenated this ol' 50 year old."