LAFAYETTE — Owen Koonce has always been the youngster in his Centaurus basketball cohort.
Ever since Koonce was in the fourth grade, Joe Lynch, Nick Vaver and Quinn Rubin, and young Koonce have been building chemistry and camaraderie. Now that they are all in high school, Koonce is the only link in that chain that won't break once graduation rolls around at the end of this school year.
Koonce approached this past winter basketball season with the knowledge of his friends' impending departure driving his every move. He had to make it count, not for himself but to maximize his final opportunity to lace up the sneakers and step out onto the hardwood with several of his best friends.
That was something to see.
With Koonce playing like there was no tomorrow, the Warriors reached the Class 4A Great 8 for their best finish since 2006. For leading the way, and at the end of the Warriors' groundbreaking run, Koonce was named BoCoPreps.com boys basketball player of the year.
"It was really special to see us all come together and play this last season together," Koonce said. "It was really great for our team chemistry and bonding. That really helped out on the court. I'm definitely going to miss those guys next year but it was great to have one more run together."
Playing all 26 games of his junior campaign in 2018-19, Koonce averaged 18.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. That production helped the Warriors (18-8, 11-3 Northern) win more conference games than the past three years combined and claim their first postseason victory since 2006 with a 63-45 win over Eagle Valley in the second round. They followed that win with a 62-60 win over Thomas Jefferson in the Sweet 16.
The Warriors may have gone even farther had they not met up with unbeaten juggernaut and eventual state champion Lewis-Palmer in the Great 8. Perhaps guided by his relationship with the older players on the team, even in the waning moments of that game on March 2 when it become painfully clear the Warriors could not win, Koonce gathered his team and told his teammates, especially the seniors, that they needed to have fun for the final moments. For some of them it would be the last few minutes of their prep careers.
"It really just came down to us all buying into the system," Koonce said. "Before the season started, we all sat down together and had a meeting about who we wanted to be and what we wanted to accomplish. We decided that we wanted to have a defensive identity. That carried us through the season and took us pretty far."
The Warriors' defense and aggressive mentality may have sustained their run but it was Koonce — the Northern League player of the year — who left a lasting impression on each of their opponents.
"He's steady and he's a calm competitor," Silver Creek head coach Bob Banning said. "He torched us for close to 30 points last season so we knew he'd be a handful this year. He's athletic and he has great length, so he played bigger than he is and he anticipates well. He's also smart and sees the game as it develops, so to coach against him is a difficult thing."
Even with many of Koonce's friends graduating, Centaurus will return a talented core of players for next season. They won't have this season's size but will look to their shooters to keep their program on an upward trajectory.
However things shake out over the next year, fourth-year head coach Travis Maron, who just coached his first above-.500 team at Centaurus, can at least sleep well knowing that Koonce will return to anchor the Warriors once again in 2019-20.
"He's a special talent," Maron said. "But who he's become and who he's developing into as a person has been really great. You always hear how you want your best player to be your hardest worker and your best teammate. He really wants to be that and he works really hard to be that. He tries to be an example of doing what it takes to be successful at a high level, he cares about his teammates, and he tries to be unselfish on the floor.
"It's done a lot for us to have that special talent walk through the door, obviously. But when your best player has a special character like he does, that lifts everybody up and allows you to do great things."