EARLY — The Early Longhorns labored through a rocky campaign last season, but first-year head coach Nadir Dalleh will attempt to lead the basketball program back into playoff contention, starting at 8 p.m. with the non-district season opener at Merkel.    

“I just have to have the kids believe they can win,” said Dalleh, who inherits a team that went 4-25 a year ago and 1-13 in district action. “The kids have the talent to compete, I have to get them to be able to finish off games and understand that they have the ability to do it. We drew a really tough district and building that confidence will be key to a playoff run.”

Returners from last year’s squad include seniors Cameron Denison and Austin Isom, as well as juniors Chase Riker, Colin Walker and Jake Fisher.

“I expect Riker to be a team leader along with Denison,” Dalleh said. “The team responds to those two really well and they will play a lot of very important minutes along with Fisher handling the point guard duties. Walker and Isom will have the task of controlling the lane. We will be undersized in most games we play and it will be up to those two and junior Jacob Morgan to take on that task.”

 Newcomers to watch include Morgan and fellow juniors Josh Benson and Bubba Reno.

“Benson has the ability to change a game at any time,” Dalleh said. “He has the ability to drive and score along with hitting the outside shot. He is also an excellent passer that will open up many opportunities for his teammates.

“Reno is an excellent shooter who can fill it up from anywhere and he will be called upon to do so. Morgan has been the most improved. He is an excellent rebounder and can finish around the basket.”    

Following tonight’s opener, the Longhorns will face Comanche, Clyde, Hico, Dublin and Lampasas, as well as compete in the Dublin, Glen Rose and Breckenridge tournaments.

“Our pre-district schedule will tough,” Dalleh said. “We play some ex-district foes that will give us a great look into what our district will give us. We are going to three quality tournaments that will test our ability as a team. I’m looking forward to the Glen Rose tournament because we’ll see some competition from other areas of the state that we’re not used to seeing.”

The competition in the new District 6-2A is expected to be even tougher than what Early faced a year ago.

“This district will be one of the toughest around,” Dalleh said. “Wall and Jim Ned are consistently ranked in the top 10 in the state, then you throw in Ballinger, Bangs and Coleman. Those teams have been traditionally tough as well. I knew all this when I took the job, but I believe our kids can compete with the teams and be successful.”

A postseason berth, Dalleh believes, is within the Longhorns’ reach this season

“This team has the chance to be a playoff team,” Dalleh said. “In order for that to happen, we have to be able to play as a team. We have to be able to handle pressure and run the floor and beat teams with our speed. We have a very tough district and, as everyone knows, you have to win at home and sneak a few games out on the road. These players work hard and they know what is coming up in district. They have the ability to beat anyone on any given night.”