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Aquinas Catholic boys basketball has its eyes set on a season that advances to the sub-state round. Winning two playoff games would put the Monarchs one more victory away from a second trip to the state tournament in five years.

For a group that went just 2-8 against the Centennial Conference a year ago, jumping into the state conversation is quite a lofty goal. The league figures to be one of the most competitive anywhere in Nebraska once again, and the roster is short on post players.

Rebounding and interior defense could be a work in progress.

Regardless, coach Trevor Weiss says there’s a different feel to the group in his first year leading the program and his third on the coaching staff.

There’s a different hunger, more of a focus and a renewed level of confidence.

“I can just sense these guys love the game of basketball. That’s what coach (Kyle) Eller helped out with the last few years – getting these guys to love the game of basketball. You can see that they want to be better every day,” Weiss said. “They show up to practice every day and want to work hard.”

Not that groups in the past weren’t hungry, but Weiss says this year is just different.

Eller led the program for four seasons and put together winning campaigns in the first and the last.

Aquinas was 14-10 a year ago despite the six games under .500 mark in the conference. The Monarchs started 3-0, improved to 11-3 with a win over Columbus Lakeview on Jan. 13 but then lost seven of the next 10 before splitting with Columbus Scotus in the final regular season game and the sub-district round.

That stretch of losing included state tournament teams Lincoln Christian and Hasting St. Cecilia and a 22-win North Bend team. After losing to Scotus 42-40 on Feb. 15, Aquinas bounced back with a 42-25 win in the postseason.

It ended two nights later in a 59-57 loss to North Bend.

Five seniors graduated from that group, the most significant of which was Tyler Vavrina and his 16 points per game.

Back are four players who appeared in more than 20 games.

Zach Zavodny brings back the most offensive firepower at 8.6 points per game. Fellow senior Jack Jakub scored 3.1 points per game while another senior, Dan Stara, contributed an average of 4.5.

Junior Braden Smith, the final player with 20 or more games of varsity play time last year, scored six points per game.

Overall, the team was OK offensively, scoring 50 points per game. Where Aquinas struggled was on the glass with only 23.5 rebounds per game.

It’s a concern again for a guard-heavy group that features just two players 6-foot or taller.

Thus, when Aquinas held a scrimmage Saturday morning, Weiss’ main focus was team defense.

“Sometimes we don’t help each other out on defense,” Weiss said. “Especially on offense, too, we lost Tyler. I was looking for how well we would score the ball because that’s something we might struggle with.”

The scrimmage was divided into three quarters with Weiss coaching the expected varsity players for the first quarter then dividing the group into two six-player teams the rest of the way.

“The kids really shared the ball well together. They were looking for their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses,” he said. “I think we’re getting better at help defense. We can still talk more and communicate better.”

Improve there, and the Monarchs believe they’ll be in every game, much like they were a year ago. Though the team suffered a handful of double-digit losses, three came by just two points.

And the goal remains the same.

Though the district includes tough opponents in Wahoo and Wahoo Neumann, and a David City team expected to be improved over last year, Aquinas remains confident it will be in position for a sub-district title by the time February rolls around.

“We’ll have to make a big step. We can’t be 2-8 against the conference again and expect to get to sub-state,” Weiss said. “There’s a gap still, but this team has a lot of talent and a lot of desire. It’s possible for us to bridge that gap by the end of the season.”

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at DVDsports@lee.net.

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