First-year Head Coach Darin Kessi takes over a program that has struggled to win in recent years

In recent years, the Crook County High School boys basketball program has fallen on hard LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A.J. Cooper goes up for a shot over a pair of defenders during a recent drill. Cooper is the only Cowboy returner with significant varsity experience. The Cowboys open their season on the road against Burns on Wednesday.

The Cowboys have struggled to compete against larger schools in the Intermountain Hybrid League. They have not had a winning record since 2007-2008, when they finished third in the Intermountain Conference and reached the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs.

Since then, the Cowboys have compiled a combined record of 24-94.

First-year Head Coach Darin Kessi hopes to turn that around.

“To be competitive, we have to be in really good shape, and even more than that, we have to be in good shape mentally,” Kessi said. “We have got to do things that maybe we haven’t done before physically or even conditioning-wise and teach them how to be tough mentally.”

In order to teach mental toughness, Kessi has had the team do more conditioning than usual during preseason practices. The team is doing a lot of running, and defensive drills, but the team is also working hard on fundamentals.

“There is a lot that we are trying to put in right now,” he said. “Tryouts were a lot of conditioning and fundamental drills. Now it’s putting in parts of our offense and obviously transition and our defensive scheme.”

The Cowboys will open their season on the road Wednesday night at Burns. The two teams split a year ago, and Kessi noted that Burns has a couple of quality returning players.

“They have a couple of pretty good ballplayers,” he said. “They have a really good junior. He’s quite an athlete, but I think if we can be in pretty good shape against those guys, it can give us a competitive edge.”

In order to keep opposing teams off balance, the Cowboys are going to play a variety of defenses this year. In addition, Kessi plans on working hard on both transition defense and offense. The team will press from time to time and when the opportunity presents itself, the team is going to run.

“The big thing is we are working hard, we are conditioning a lot and we are seeing how bad the kids want to battle for positions,” Kessi said. “The biggest thing I’ve seen from the boys is that the effort has been good at all levels.”

A.J. Cooper is the lone Cowboy with significant varsity experience, but Seth Kessi, Arron Tavernia, and Andrew Sofich also saw some varsity action a year ago.

Blake Bartels also played some varsity ball late last season, but is out early in the season because of an injury suffered during football season.

Although the team will be young and inexperienced, Kessi still has high expectations. While he wants to win games, the focus will be on playing hard and getting better.

“I think it’s going to be a real positive year,” he said. “We are going to build a lot of team chemistry and I told the kids that we aren’t going to focus on our record. We are going to focus on the things that we can control — playing hard, playing together, getting better every day, and being proud of what we have accomplished. I think if we can do that, then we are going to win some games and we are going to surprise some people.”

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