By Kathi Bliss
With excitement continuing to ride high on the growing success of the entire Lockhart High School Athletics programs the Runnin’ Lions and Lady Lions are gearing up to start a new season and make The Den their own.
With a new head coach at the helm, the Varsity Lions are bringing renewed spirit and energy into the Lion’s Den as they start their season on Saturday.
“They have a commitment level this season that I’ve not seen out of these guys before,” said Head Coach Josh Billo, who was promoted from an assistant’s position after the departure of former coach James Halatin this summer. “They’re here in the morning when I get here, ready to go and excited about the program.”
Billo promises hoops fans a new shine on Lion basketball as the season gets started, with a renewed intensity and key changes in the program’s tempo.
“There were a lot of great things that [Halatin] did with the program during his time here,” Billo said. “And a lot of those things, we’re going to keep and build on. But there are some other things that I wanted to change, and so there are some things we’re doing differently than we have in the past.”
Key among those changes, Billo said, will be the pace of the defense, which he said will be more “aggressive” than Lion fans are used to seeing.
“We have great kids, but we don’t have a lot of those kids who are going to be natural basketball players,” he said. “So we really have to use what we have, and that’s our strength and our speed on the defense.”
Offensively, Billo said he has tried to step away from the “star” culture cultivated by Halatin over the last three years, when the team relied heavily on the powerhouse trio of Clay Buehring, Bruce Busbee and Trae Spence.
“Those were guys who were just the kind of players where something was going wrong, we could count on them to individually right the ship,” Billo said. “Since we don’t have that, we’re working on building a program where we don’t need that, and we have strong players across the floor that are able to come together and make those corrections.”
Billo’s bench boasts very few returning starters, with Roland Luna standing alone as a returning starter, among a handful of seniors and a young squad pulled largely from last year’s JV. An additional “x-factor” will be the addition of members of the football team, likely Stephon Houston and Tyresse Purefoy, among others, who will not join the team until the end of football season.
“Those guys are bringing something different in, when they get done playing football,” he said. “There is a different kind of athleticism and leadership the football guys are going to bring when they are finally able to join us.”
Meanwhile, Billo is pushing forward with building a new culture in the basketball program.
“We started to get out of the mindset last year that we just expected to lose,” he said. “We actually got some competitive drive, and really started to take it hard and get mad when we lost. And we’re building on that and carrying it into the start of this season.
It’s a season, Billo said, full of questions waiting to be answered. After new District lines were drawn last February, old rivalries and expectations went out the window; the new ones are waiting to be born.
“We know that we’re going to expect Alamo Heights and Dripping Springs to rise to the top of the District,” he said. ‘That’s just something that we know is probably going to happen. But after that, it’s wide open and it could be anyone’s guess.”
More than anything, Billo said, he is working toward building a culture of family among his players, to help them understand and commit to playing at a higher level as team players.
“I grew up studying and idolizing Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich),” he said. “I study the way he builds his teams, and that’s something that I’m trying to emulate as much as I can.”
Additionally, he has coached his team to believe that hard work is the key to their success.
“Our success is not a matter of talent,” he said. “We can match most of the District in talent, but our goal is to never let anyone outwork us. Win or lose, we’re going to be the hardest-working team on the floor.”
His team shares his enthusiasm.
“It’s our time,” said Daniel Sillero, one of Billo’s selected starters. “For years, we’ve been watching other teams hang up banners in our gym, and that’s OUR gym. We need to start putting up some banners in there, too!”
“Seeing the success of the other programs is making us want this even more,” said Jun Lai. “We’re excited for them, and we want them to be excited for us, because we’ve made this commitment to bring home the wins.”
Across the hall, Lady Lion Head Coach Dennis Helms returns for his second year at the helm in a program with its own struggles.
“We’re a lot farther ahead in our skills and development than we were at this time last year,” he said. “And we’re working hard every day to play faster, to tighten up those technical skills and to put together a team that will be able to bring home some wins this season.”
Hanging his hat on a thick roster of returners, including Princess Daniels, Marinna Sifuentes and Jasmine Gonzales, Helms said the introduction of several younger players and a spattering of transfer students is bringing new life into his program.
“There are several of them, they have the talent and they have ‘it’ between their ears,” he said. “And those are kids, those are the ones that are passing that along to the others, and helping to grow the team atmosphere and the idea that we can be a successful team.”
“There are really too many kids working too hard to name one or two that I think are going to emerge as my team leaders this season,” he said. “Everyone has their part to play, and I think everyone’s trying to learn their part, and make sure they’re doing their job, and helping everyone else do their own jobs.”
Every one of the Lady Lions, he said, is poised to make a difference in the overall success of the team.
Both the Lions and the Lady Lions held tryouts in mid-October, and begin play this week. The Lady Lions will host scrimmage play against Travis in the Lion’s Den on Saturday, Nov. 5, while the Lions will bring Cedar Creek High School to the Lockhart Junior High Gym beginning at noon.
“The main thing we want to see this season,” Billo said, “is these kids getting the support they deserve from the community.”
“Our programs might not be as successful as some of the other sports programs have been in the past several years,” he said. “At least not yet. But our kids work just as hard as any athlete in this District, and they deserve the recognition that goes with that.”
Lion and Lady Lion basketball games will rotate on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the season, with District play beginning in December.