PREP BASKETBALL: Miners look to keep improving as they dig into league play | TheUnion.com

PREP BASKETBALL: Miners look to keep improving as they dig into league play

Compete and continue to get better.

That's the approach the Miners are taking as they dig into their Sierra Foothill League schedule.

"We hope to get better every week and that's a certainty," Nevada Union boys basketball head coach Mark Casey said. "We certainly know that we are in the crucible that is the SFL and it's going to mold you. We're going to be a much better basketball team when we come out of this."

This season will be the last in which the Miners compete in the powerful SFL as they are moving to the Foothill Valley League next season.

So far this season, the Miners have struggled in non-league and tourney play, going 5-9 before dropping their SFL opener to Folsom on Tuesday. Things do not get any easier for the Miners going forward.

"We're going to see the toughest teams in the section 12 times over the next month and a half," Casey said referring to the talented teams that make up the SFL. "We stick to the mantra of, 'we're getting better and better, and we have a little higher ceiling than some of these teams that are already as good as they are going to be."

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Nevada Union (5-10, 0-1 SFL) opened the season with wins in four of its first five games, but have since dropped nine of its last 10. The Miners are a young team with just four seniors on their roster, but do boast a handful of starters that have been through the SFL gauntlet before.

LEADING MEN

Jack Fraser, Dawson Fay and Justin Gardner all have varsity experience from a season ago and have been the Miners' leaders so far this season.

Fraser, a 6-foot, 1-inch senior guard, does most of the ball handling for the NU, plays strong defense and is one of three Miners that averages more than 10 points per game.

"We ask Jack to do everything," Casey said. "He handles the ball, plays 32 minutes and he's steady. His play, as it always has been, is really important to us."

Gardner, a 6-4 sophomore, can play any position on the floor and regularly stuffs the stat sheet.

"This is somebody who can be really special," Casey said earlier this season. "In a whisper he can put up 25 points. He's a rebounder, he's a playmaker, he's an assist guy and he's one of our best defenders."

Fay is Nevada Union's closest thing to an inside presence as the 6-1 forward plays much bigger than his height would indicate. He often leads the Miners in rebounding and can explode for a 20-plus point effort on any given night.

"Super athletic, physical, quick," is how Casey described Fay. "He's a little bit undersized for where we play him, but I think he is an All-SFL caliber player as a junior."

The Miners also have strong players in senior guard Hayden Fay and senior post player Justin Houlihan, who are both back on the team after not playing in their junior seasons.

"It's been nice to have Hayden Fay back in the fold," Casey said. "He's certainly helped us. He's got a great attitude and he's a good defender and shooter."

Nevada Union also gets a boost to their roster this week as senior guard Owen Dal Bon returns to action after missing the first half of the season with an injury sustained while playing for the football team.

"He's going to help," said Casey. "He's battle tested. He's one of our best, if not our best, on-ball defender. And, his leadership and ball handling skills are definitely something we can use."

SMALL, BUT VERSATILE

Despite a lack of height in the front court, Casey said he likes the makeup of his team.

"It's not a big group, but it's a versatile group," he said. "We have some guys that are real competitors and they care how they show. They want to win, but if we're going to lose, we're going to make sure the other team has a ball game."

Nevada Union doesn't have a player taller than 6-4, but Casey said he likes his team's athelticism across the board.

"I've never had a team like this where we don't have a weak link athletically," he said.

'AWARE OF WHAT'S IN FRONT OF US'

The Miners are two seasons removed from a fourth place finish in the SFL and their last playoff appearance, and are coming off a 2016-17 campaign in which they finished with just one league win and in last place.

Despite the rough start and the tough road ahead, Casey said a playoff bid is not out of the question for the Miners.

"We are very well aware of what's in front of us," he said. "There is a possibility that we will compete every night and be proud of the way we played, but be on the short end of the score. But, if we can grab two or three wins along the way, we give ourselves a chance (at a playoff bid)."

Last season, five of the SFL's seven teams went to the playoffs.

BEASTS OF THE SFL

The Folsom Bulldogs, who won the SFL championship in 2015 and 2016, will be a contender for the title once again as they boast a loaded roster featuring 6-9 senior Mason Forbes. Folsom is off to a 12-3 start this season including a win over NU.

"Folsom will be a bad matchup for everyone," Casey said. "They are real tough."

The Oak Ridge Trojans are also a likely league title contender and have marched their way to a 10-3 record so far. Granite Bay (10-5), Rocklin (8-8) and Del Oro (12-3) are all playoff teams from a season ago and boast talented rosters once again. Woodcreek (10-5), which won the SFL and the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-I championship last season, no longer has high school phenom Jordan Brown, but has still managed to win 10 of their first 15 games.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email wford@theunion.com.