Hughson boys finish basketball preseason schedule; look ahead to start of TVL play in January

In many sports, the non-league schedule is a chance for coaches to learn about their teams’ strengths and weaknesses, tinker with lineups, develop player confidence and determine which strategies might lead to the most success. That certainly was the case with the Hughson boys basketball team.

The Huskies finished their preseason schedule with a 7-6 record this week by dropping two games – losing 53-42 to Orestimba on Monday and falling 69-56 at Johansen on Wednesday. The back-to-back defeats came after Hughson placed third in the Delhi Tournament the week before.

How does third-year Coach Justin Riggs assess what he’s seen so far?

“We can shoot, we can drive. We can play big or small. We can match up with just about anybody and we work as hard as anybody,” he said, pausing before adding, “We’ve lost a few that we should have won.”

Three players have been constants for the Huskies – senior point guard Cade McLaughlin,

Junior guard Jackson Gehrke and senior center Deagan Bell, who at 7 feet tall towers above everyone else on the court.

McLaughlin is averaging 12.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game and, in Riggs’ words, “can do it all.”

“He’s definitely the most skilled on the team,” the coach said.

Gehrke averages 11.5 points and has impressed Riggs with his speed, athleticism and basketball IQ. “He’s the brain. He’s the leader,” Riggs said. “He can dribble drive, assist, shoot and play make.”

But it’s Bell who may be the most intriguing. His size gives Hughson something no other team can match, though it is offset by his lack of basketball experience. He arrived at Hughson this year as a transfer student after previously attending Turlock Christian and Pitman. After beginning the season coming off the bench, Bell moved into the starting lineup last week and made the all-tournament team in Delhi, where he had 33 points in one game, 17 in another and averaged five blocked shots. He improved his season averages to 12.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game.

“I used to call him 6-9, but he always said he’s 7 feet,” Riggs said.

Bell worked with a personal trainer during the offseason and dropped 35 pounds. Still, despite his sheer size, he hasn’t played a lot of competitive basketball until now.

“There are not a lot of kids who can deal with his length,” Riggs said. “He’s a game changer. You can’t teach size. We had to change our whole strategy and sets. Every game he seems to be getting better.”

The rest of Hughson’s roster has been in flux. Part of that is the three football players -- David Delgado, Carter Berger and Malakai Sumter – who didn’t join the team until early December because of the Huskies’ success in the playoffs. The other piece is Riggs simply trying to evaluate his roster to decide who fits best in their various roles.

“It’s been a constant shuffling of the deck,” he said.

After a busy preseason, the Huskies are now off until Jan. 3 – when they open the Trans-Valley League schedule at home against league favorite Ripon Christian.

“We’ll be as ready as we can possibly be,” Riggs promised. “We’ve just got to get him ready defensively and play hard. If we can do that, we’ll compete. League is so difficult. We’re trying to get as much experience as we can.”

After RC, Riggs expects Escalon, Ripon and Riverbank to be good.

“Everybody’s got strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs this year.”