MEAD — Last season, the Mead boys basketball team rode a scoring triple threat of Walker Korell, James Maher and Michael Ward to the program's first appearance in the Great 8.
Two members of last year's groundbreaking trio - Korell and Maher - graduated in May. That leaves Ward, who is now a senior, as the obvious choice to take up the mantle for a 2016-17 Mavericks team that is very much seeking a return to the late rounds of the Class 4A state tournament.
For Ward, that means stepping up his already versatile game and shouldering more responsibility than ever before. If their success depends in any way on getting behind Ward as the team's leader this season, the Mavericks will happily take that deal.
"It's all about leading by example this year," Ward said. "We lost our leaders in James and Walker last year, so I'll have to take on more of a leadership role. I need to be smart with the ball, make sure I'm making the right decisions and putting in the work because that's what's going to help us go as far as we can this year."
A 6-foot-2 guard, Ward averaged 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game last season on team with an established point guard, a pure scoring threat and more than enough players to rebound the basketball. He shot 38 percent from behind the 3-point line and scored in double digits during 23 of the Mavericks' 26 games, breaking the 20-point barrier six times.
Even with all the talent the Mavericks lost to graduation, the cupboard isn't bare for head coach Darin Reese. Ward has also gotten noticeably bigger and stronger and is finishing better through contact. Senior Cameron Cheung will step in at point guard. At wing, 6-foot-7 Alex Sandstrom and 6-foot-3 Derek Edwards, who combined for 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season, are back. Overall, the Mavericks are bigger than ever before with six players measuring 6-foot-2 or taller and expect to have a number of players capable of scoring the ball.
"I'm not sure I've coached anyone more competitive than him," Reese said of Ward. "His IQ and maybe even more than that his basketball instincts are just phenomenal. He can handle the ball and finish in tight spots. Frankly, he's one of the better kids when it comes to the mental game that's been around here in a long time.
"We'll ask a lot of Mike and this year we probably have the most varsity experience coming back than we've ever had. We'll be as big as we've ever been. It'll be a different team and we're asking some guys to do more and to do some different things but if the first couple weeks of practice are any indicator, those guys are all ready."
Ranked No. 7 in the CHSAANow.com preseason top 10 and with the new Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) system in place, the Mavericks will play a non-conference schedule that includes three top- 10 teams: No. 1 Valor Christian, No. 4 Golden and No. 8 D'Evelyn. They will also face fifth-ranked Holy Family twice during what figures to be a tougher Tri-Valley League schedule.
The 2016-17 season is looking like another promising opportunity for the steadily-improving Mavericks. After reaching the Sweet 16 last year, they're setting their goals just as high for the upcoming campaign.
"We've all worked hard and we all know where we want to be," Ward said. "We all want to be in the Final Four but we know that there are a lot of great teams out there who want the same thing and if we don't put the work in, we won't get there."