Taking a team from five wins to a 21-7 mark and third-place finish at the Class 4A state tournament has that effect on coaches. So does returning two all-state players.
More than anything, though, Bailey is just more comfortable in the lead chair and the responsibilities that come along with it.
“Any time you start something new, it’s a little intimidating,” Bailey said. “Now we have a foundation set and the kids know the expectations and we’re building off of a lot of good things that we saw from last year.”
The T-Birds were second in 4A in scoring defense last season, holding teams to 46.8 points per game. State runner-up Casper Kelly Walsh was first (37.8).
The Trojans held off East’s comeback bid in the state semifinals for a 46-44 win.
Bailey expects his team to be just as defensive-minded this season.
“We knew that we had to play good defense last year, so we spent a huge amount of our time teaching the fundamentals of defense,” Bailey said. “That kind of hurt our offense, but we knew that might happen going in. We felt like we didn’t have much of a choice. Early in the year, we were going to tournaments and beating teams by scoring just 35 or 40 points.
“Whenever you play great defense, you’re going to give yourself a chance to be in any game. The offense will come around eventually. And, as the season progressed, we got better offensively and got to the point where we were taking quality shots and executing our sets as well as anyone in the state.”
Taking that next step also means playing with confidence.
“We have to have a belief that I’m not sure the group last year ever truly had,” Bailey said. “We have to believe that we can win the big game. We had talent, but I’m not sure we had the belief when we needed it. Some guys had it and they shined in the state tournament. But we needed five guys with that belief playing together when they take the floor.”
The T-Birds graduated Ryan Cook (8.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.4 apg), Cameron Johnson (7.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg), Tyler Lambert (8.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.5 apg) and Quintin Pope (6.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.6 apg).They also lost key reserve Clinton Jaure (1.3 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.7 apg).
“Those guys laid a foundation and showed where we could be as a program,” Bailey said. “That was outstanding. They gave us an identity as a defensive team that controls the tempo and dictates pace. That has to continue for us to have success.
They still have all-staters Zach McCord (9.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.0 rpg, 1 spg) and Elijah Oliver (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
That guard-forward combo is good starting point for any team.
“They’ve both worked year-round to improve and add things to their games that are going to surprise some people,” Bailey said.
Bailey said that Oliver, a junior, has improved his ball-handling, which will allow him to attack the basket more.
“His side-to-side movements are a lot better and so is his ball-handling,” Bailey said. “He’s learned how to really attack the basket. He’s doing a great job of taking it to the hole, so I suspect you’ll see more than a few dunks out of him this year.
“(Oliver’s) post moves have also gotten much stronger and he’s worked on his outside shot. He did a good job of improving his all-around game.”
Oliver’s athleticism poses a mismatch for traditional post players, while his strength bothers guards.
McCord’s biggest gains have come through experience and poise. To use a cliché the game has slowed down for the senior.
“He knows exactly what I expect out of him and he’s doing it to the best of his ability,” Bailey said. “He’s able to relax a little bit more and, at times, he’s taken over practice and been unstoppable shooting the basketball.”
Dashay Hunt, Robert Munoz, Tyler Peeples and Tyler Weinberger provide depth and athleticism at the guard spot.
“We’re going to be much quicker this year,” Bailey said. “Weinberger played some varsity as a sophomore, but didn’t really play for me last year. He’s doing some good things right now and I’m looking for him to be a shooter that takes some pressure off of (McCord and Oliver) when teams are loading up against them.”
Munoz played defensive back for East’s football team this fall and that made him stronger, more physical and more confident, Bailey said.
Peeples brings a great deal of speed and quickness. And, no, those aren’t redundant terms. Speed is being fast over distance and quickness and being fast and explosive in a short distances.
Sophomore Jacob Ross stands 6-foot-6 and brings some height to the post for East.
Bailey expects senior forward Conner Leihsing to surprise people the way he did for the Thunderbirds football team.
A knee injury sidelined him for his sophomore season and injured wrist ligaments kept him out his junior year. Leihsing contributed to East’s semifinal football squad on offense, defense and special teams.
“Like (Oliver) was a surprise last year, we’re hoping Conner can do the same,” Bailey said.
Leihsing suffered from back spasms late in the football season, but they haven’t seemed to bother him in basketball.
“If they’re an issue, he’s doing a good job of playing through them and not complaining,” Bailey said. “He’s a smart player and he’s learning what we need him to do very quickly.”
Bailey also expects senior T.J. Olson, sophomore Austin Brodahl and juniors Rhett Sanders and Drazen Moratzka to fill roles for East.
Moratzka played in three games for Cheyenne Central last season, but transferred to East after his father, Doug Moratzka, was fired as the Indians basketball coach.
“He’s the stereotypical coach’s kid,” Bailey said. “He’s smart and he understands what we’re trying to do. He coaches his teammates and helps them out too. That goes a long way.
“Often times, kids earn minutes when they do those things and find a role. (Moratzka) will find a niché, whether it’s rebounding or something else. He’s going to find something and do it really well.”