BUTTE – The Deer Lodge basketball team is tired of waiting for ‘next year’ to come.

The Wardens have just one player returning who played serious minutes and head coach Dakota Norris says he plans to start four juniors and a sophomore. A season removed from finishing 13-10 and graduating six seniors – four of whom started all last season – the natural response might be to view the upcoming year as one of rebuilding.

They don’t like that.

“That’s the one thing about Deer Lodge that always drives me crazy,” junior Graydon Nicholson said. “Everyone’s always talking about next year. I don’t wanna hear that my senior year. I want to do something my junior year. My senior year.

“That’s one phrase I really don’t like.”

Norris, in his third season as head coach, has a feeling his team will be a force to be reckoned with by the end of the year. He mentioned Nicholson will likely be all-conference this season and has a shot to make all-state.

Sophomore Judd Applegate is another player Norris highlighted, while Dyllon McDermid is the lone returning starter. McDermid is easily the Wardens’ best defender and will be called upon to take some difficult assignments in an extremely tough district.

“We’ll be okay at the beginning of the year, but by the end we’ll be pretty tough,” Norris said. “Young kids are fun because they don’t know a whole lot and they don’t act like they know a whole lot. They’re very coachable.

“The lack of experience is exciting because they have no idea how good they can be.”

By the time tournament time rolls around, Norris feels that his team has the potential to be in a pretty good spot.

The Wardens will have some solid shooters this year, which will push them to have a bit more motion in their offense. Cutting and moving off screens will be critical when the team isn’t in its base zone offense.

Defensively, Deer Lodge runs mostly zone and being able to execute this will go a long ways toward determining how far they’ll go.

“The big thing this year is defense. I have a feeling if our defense improves and we have more hustle and less distractions, I think this year will be nice,” Nicholson said. “This team has a lot of heart.”

Distractions have played a part in the previous couple seasons, but they feel the culture has gotten better.

There’s a renewed sense of togetherness around the team.

“We have a saying,” McDermid said. “It’s ‘brothers don’t let each other walk into the dark alone.’

“We always have each other’s back.”

The saying was originally created by Norris last years and it’s stuck with the team ever sense. Nicholson said he’s really felt that saying start to have some power this season.

There will be some highs and lows for the Wardens this year, but if anything it seems like a team that’s headed in the right direction. Deer Lodge hasn’t been in the state tournament since 2012, but it seems like that drought is set to end soon.

“A lot of people are underestimating us at this point,” McDermid said. “They think that just because we’re bringing up kids from the lower squads that we won’t be able to do much.

“We’re just going to take it one game at a time. It’s going to pay off in the end.”

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