New-look Grizzlies set to defend championship

Last year the Galena Grizzlies managed to defeat even the Sports Illustrated jinx, winning their first Class 4A state basketball championship after the publication ranked them the No. 1 team in Nevada in a preseason poll.

How soon they forget.

The Grizzlies, who went 23-9 and defeated Mojave 54-51 in the state finals in Las Vegas, is apparently an afterthought this year, eluding any mention by SI and being pegged by local coaches and media to finish third in the Northern 4A, behind Reno and Manogue.

They open their season Friday, hosting Foothill at 7 p.m., followed by Bishop Gorman on Saturday.

"My phone hasn't been ringing - that's something uncharacteristic for me," said Tom Mauer, in his 15th season as head coach for Galena, who added that he has yet to get a call even from Northern Nevada media. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Respect is earned. Just desserts to Reno."

The Grizzlies, who beat the Huskies 59-56 at Galena Dec. 5, will travel to Reno for their Dec. 4 rematch.

"They're the team to beat this year," Mauer said of the Huskies. "That's the consensus of the coaches and most Nevada writers. I can't argue with that. They're 10 deep. They're mad at the way they lost to Douglas (in the regional semifinals) last year. They have a great schedule."

Mauer said he can relate to the expectations that the Huskies - led by Duke signee Olek Czyz and junior Austin Morgan - face as the top-rated team in the North.

"That's what we were up against last year," Mauer said. "They're supposed to win it all. The pressure will be on them."

Mauer said part of the reason Galena isn't being touted this year is that most of the media, instead of calling him, have assumed the Grizzlies are going to be the Luke Babbitt Show.

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Babbitt, who recently signed with Nevada after previously verbally committing to Ohio State, averaged 29 points and 11 rebounds per game last year.

But in addition to adding 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season and polishing his game, Babbitt took it upon himself to help build this year's squad, Mauer said.

"We were supposed to have four returning seniors this year - all with little or no experience," he said. "I was curious. We had a big sophomore class with literally no juniors. Luke talks to some kids and suddenly I have nine seniors."

Only one of whom - Deon Ashley, formerly of Skyline High School in Oakland - is a transfer.

A quartet of senior Galena football players (5-10 point guard Garrett Womack, 5-11, 220-pound Jake Hess, 6-2 Jake Mansfield and 5-8 point guard Goose Robinson) will join Babbitt and guards Ashley and 6-4 Scott Bristol in trying to guide the Grizzlies to a repeat.

"Luke is a team captain - he surrounded himself with players. It's an unbelievable story," Mauer said. "You've got to say a lot about Luke Babbitt. Luke just wants to play for the team. He's not an individual who just cares about himself."

Mauer said Hess, who will play football for Boise State, played on the varsity team as a freshman before losing interest.

"He wanted to work on his footwork to prepare for Boise," Mauer said. "I said I didn't know, but he said, 'The bottom line is I'm going to play for you.' He's the only guy that can guard Babbitt. He can contribute in a few weeks. His role in the meantime is to make Luke Babbitt better. He's buying into that. He's an outstanding, outstanding role player. I told him (this week) I was close to making him a captain."

Mauer said Robinson has the has the best ball-handling skills in the North and has the ability to play at the next level (he may play for Yakima Valley Community College) and that Bristol "has come a million miles and has outstanding defense, who as a taller guard can guard smaller guards."

Mauer said Ashley may start off the bench and between him and Womack, may change the face of Galena's traditional motion offense.

"We can create a whole new ballgame for Galena basketball," Mauer said. "Deon's a very good shooter. Teams that zone Babbitt, that box-and-one Babbitt, are in a heap of trouble. We're ready for everything.

"We're working on some sets. The Indiana motion isn't feasible this year due to lack of experience. You need four years for that. It's very uncharacteristic that we have an early transition (game). Mauer is known for moving the ball up. This is one year I wouldn't mind if there was a shot clock. I've always been against it in the past. We're going to control the tempo. It adds another piece to the chess game for me."

The Grizzlies won't be hurting for competition this year, either.

Galena, which faced three nationally ranked California teams last year - Artesia (twice), Archbishop Mitty and Westchester - and three others from across America, including Scott County (Ky.), St. John (Washington, D.C.) and Arlington Country Day (Fla.), once again has a top-notch schedule.

After playing the Huskies, Galena will travel to Elk Grove, Calif., Dec. 7-8, for the Monterey Trails Tournament, where it will meet Edison ("the best team out of Stockton," Mauer said), a perennial CIF contender.

The Grizzlies will return home for the annual George Maldonado Classic Dec. 14-17, which they will open by playing Mountain View (Mesa, Ariz.) in the marquee (non-bracket) game.

Skyview (Utah), Dorsey (Los Angeles), Mira Loma (Sacramento), Eldorado and Douglas will also participate in the eight-team tournament.

Galena will play Reed Dec. 22 and Douglas Dec. 23 before leaving on Christmas Day for Tampa, Fla., where it will participate in the inaugural Tampa Bay Basketball Invitational at The Dome on the South Florida campus.

Fourteen state-ranked and eight nationally ranked teams, including American Heritage, will compete in the prestigious tournament. (Mauer said it's the fourth best tournament in the nation.)

Galena will be ranked No. 16 out of 16 teams and will open against No. 1 American Heritage, which Mauer said boasts three Division-I players, including 6-10 Eloy Vargas and Kenny Boynton.

"Nobody knows anything about our guys," Mauer said. "I hear they're saying we're going to get an ass-kicking and that they can handle one kid (Babbitt) and that he's not that good."

Call it more fuel for the fire.

The Grizzlies will fly back Jan. 2 and will travel to meet Elko to start its final High Desert League season on Jan. 4. (It will join the Sierra League next year.)

Call it Mission: Unaccomplished.

"I'll be challenged as a coach. I have to earn my stripes," Mauer said. "We've won seven zone championships in the last 10 years. If you don't respect us, we'll get you. We'll do everything possible to get back to state. If we lose, we lost to a better team."

Mauer said everyone knows Babbitt will get the ball -that he'll be constantly double and triple-teamed. He said he doesn't expect his Grizzlies to win games early in the season.

But the unasked question is this: Does anyone really want to play the defending state champs in February?


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