State champion Kadets rebuild after graduates leave

DOUG FITZGERALD Published: January 11, 2013

Air Academy girls’ basketball players sport T-shirts that say “tradition never graduates.”

That’s good, because just about everyone else did from last season’s 4A state champions.

The Kadets lost 11 of the 14 players who logged varsity minutes a season ago, including all five starters. With them went 94.6 percent of their scoring along with 96.6 percent of their assists, 97.2 percent of their steals and 90.3 percent of their rebounds.

One thing that hasn't changed might be the most important.

“Change is exciting; I enjoy change,” said Bob Wingett, who is entering his third season as the Kadets’ coach. “It's been a great challenge for my staff and me, but an exciting challenge, a fun challenge.

“It's fun to watch progress.”

Wingett’s attitude is born of experience. As a coach in inner-city in Los Angeles for 16 years, he served at three schools that had fallen on hard times.

“My M.O. was taking over programs that were at rock bottom and building some tradition,” Wingett said.

He did so successfully each time, but none with more success than with the boys’ team at Workman High School, which had not won a varsity game the previous three seasons. After being talked into accepting the job when a friend became principal, Wingett guided the Lobos to four wins that first season and a 9-13 record the second. In his third season, Workman went 17-7, losing by one in the playoffs to the eventual champion.

With that pedigree in hand, Wingett started what he knew was going to be a challenging transition at Air Academy long before it happened. His seniors from last year mentored the younger players on and off the court.

That mentoring has paid off as Air Academy is 5-5 despite a schedule that included seven 5A schools in the Kadets’ first eight games.

“Our schedule was remarkably difficult in December,” Wingett said. “We do that on purpose. We feel like that's the best way to push people along in the process of skill development.

“We hope what we did in December helps us in league.”

So far, it has. The Kadets are 2-0 in the Pikes Peak Athletic League. This week will be a big test, as the Kadets host Palmer Ridge (7-2) Tuesday and Sand Creek (7-3) Friday.

Forward Justine Jenkinson is the team’s lone senior. Going from a roster laden with seniors to being the only one, Jenkinson doesn't have one pair of big shoes to fill – she has lots of them.

“It's just being the mama bear,” Jenkinson said of her role, “being the leader and showing them what Kadet basketball is."

The Kadets' best player - and according to Wingett the hardest worker – is center Kassady Huffman. The sophomore leads the team with 12.9 points per game and is second in rebounding at 7.8. Her 6.4 blocked shots per game rank third in the state.

Before the season started, Wingett pointed out the photos of Air Academy teams from years past and had assistant coach Phil Roiko, who’s been around the program for more than 25 years, tell the Kadets what each was known for. One was known for aggressiveness, another defense.

Wingett chimed in.

“This is when you start working on what you're going to be known for,” he said.

The answer, though pending, is becoming clearer.

“The team is still searching for what their identity is,” Wingett said. “But what I think what's coming is that they're very tough and unselfish.”

Those are fine qualities with which to continue tradition.

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