Coaches often like to think of their teams as a family.
With that being the case, the Dixon boys basketball team has been the little brother that is perpetually picked on by older siblings. The Dukes won just four of 56 games the past two seasons, with the bulk of those losses by wide margins.
The thing about little brothers, though, is they grow up, and when they do, watch out. That's the phase the Dukes find themselves in now – they're now delivering some beatings instead of just absorbing them.
"I have a lot of kids that have put in a lot of time, and have gone through some adversity, and didn't let it affect them," third-year Dixon coach Jason Mead said. "It didn't affect their work ethic, which is very hard for teenage kids. It's a testament to their character."
Out of necessity, Mead had to trot out the equivalent of a fresh-soph team the past two seasons, because those players were his best option. While the losses mounted, valuable lessons were learned. They are now paying dividends on both ends of the court.
Offensively, Dixon (13-3, 3-1 NIB-12 West) is averaging 56 points per game, as opposed to 45.3 a year ago. The field goal percentage is at 47.9 percent, up from 37.9 percent. The 3-point percentage is at 35.7 percent, up from 31.5 percent.
"Last year, we'd just pass it around the perimeter, somebody would try to drive and kick it out for a three, because we weren't big enough to finish," junior guard Cal Jarrett said.
This year, players like the 6-foot-3 Jarrett, 5-8 guard Laron Carr, 5-11 guard Matt Coffey and 6-7 sophomore forward Isaiah Roby have the ability to take the ball to the basket with more authority. They can finish, or still kick it out to open shooters.
"The 3-pointers that we are shooting are more open, they're more in rhythm, and a lot more of them are inside-out, as opposed to just passing around the perimeter and shooting," Mead said. "They're easier looks, and we're making them at a much higher percentage than last year."
Dixon has also become more stingy on the defensive end. Mead emphasizes man-to-man, and it's working. The Dukes are allowing 43.8 points per game, down from 59.1 a year ago.
"If we have a bad offensive night, then we can make it up with our defense," Carr said. "It's something we take a lot of pride in."
Dixon has also improved greatly in two other key areas – rebounding and turnovers.
The Dukes are averaging 29.5 boards, and have a +7.1 margin per game. A year ago, Dixon averaged 26.3 rebounds, and faced a -9.2 deficit per game.
As for turnovers, they average 11.4 a game, down from 15.8 a year ago.
Naysayers point to the Dukes' schedule. Their three tournaments, at Orion, West Carroll and Plano, feature small-school teams and account for the bulk of their games so far. Still, it's a similar slate of games from the last 2 seasons, and Dixon was losing those games.
Mead apologizes to nobody for the schedule.
"Nobody was saying, 'Man, they can't even beat 1A teams,'" Mead said. "They were saying, 'They can't beat anybody.' Now that we're winning, it's, 'Well, all they do is beat 1A schools.' ...I think we needed to learn how to win, and how to play with a lead. Those are things that we had never done. We didn't have experience doing that. We were always playing from behind."
Mead got into the West Carroll tournament this year in anticipation of taking on 1A power Eastland in the finals. Inclement weather forced cancellation of the final two rounds of the event.
The West Carroll event will be replaced on the 2014-15 Dukes' schedule by the Sterling MLK tournament, which will include a host of larger schools.
"It's all a process," Mead said. "I'm excited to see where we're headed, not only for this season, but for seasons to come."
For an athlete like Jarrett, the last 6 weeks of the season hold wonder and promise, instead of playing out the string until baseball season arrives. He spoke of seeing banners on the wall of Lancaster Gym, reminders the Dukes haven't won conference since 1967 and a regional title since 1986.
"The past few years, we really haven't had much respect," Jarrett said. "This year, we go into every game expecting to win. It's a new mindset for us, and we like it. This is just the beginning."
Did you know?
• Dixon's last conference title was in 1967.
• Dixon's last regional title was in 1986.