Dawson-Boyd boys basketball head coach Cory Larson has had the benefit of having an abundance of talented players in recent years as the Blackjacks have battled for supremacy in the Camden Conference.
With a senior class that included Independent All-Area First Team members Matt Anderson and Kruiz Lindblad, as well as second-teamer Andrew Roiger, Dawson-Boyd finished second in the Camden North behind powerhouse MACCRAY last season.
Finding his way in the mix with the experienced group was freshman guard Nathaniel Huot. Huot was the first player off the bench for the the Blackjacks, but playing on the same team with Anderson - a former Independent Player of the Year - Huot didn't see much time at his natural position of point guard.
While Huot was trying to adjust to a role that he wasn't used to, Larson said he doesn't think the young guard shot as well as would have liked, and probably wasn't as aggressive as he could have been because he wasn't running the point. But whether he was playing on the court or watching from the bench, Huot was soaking up as much knowledge as he could while being around the skilled senior class.
"They helped me learn how to play with the pressure and play with the hype of everything," Huot said. "I learned that you have to stay calm during games and not try to rush anything. Just play within the tempo of the game."
Now a sophomore, the starting point guard spot is Huot's, and he's been trying to do his part to make sure the Blackjacks don't take a step back after the graduation of Anderson, Lindblad and Roiger. Looking to push the pace whenever possible, the 6-foot guard has an inexperienced team with just two seniors up and running with a 5-1 record.
With the departure of Dawson-Boyd's top three players from last season, the Blackjacks lost 70 percent of their scoring production. Huot has taken on much of the offensive load himself, averaging 18.8 points per game. Many of his points come from beyond the arc, as he has averaged 3.5 three-pointers over the last four games.
Going from a bench player as a freshman to the team's leading scorer as a sophomore is a big step, but it's one that hasn't surprised Huot's head coach.
"He's extremely gifted with the basketball, whether handling it or shooting it," Larson said. "I figured he'd become a lot more comfortable this year with the ball in his hands."
Playing AAU basketball since the seventh grade, Huot has spent hundreds of hours on the court outside of Blackjacks' practice working on his game. Last summer, he said he played with the Minnesota Comets AAU team in six or seven tournaments, including the King James Summer Showcase in Chicago.
Thanks to his experience with the Comets, as well as his time on the floor for the Blackjacks last season, Huot said it didn't take him long to settle into his starting role.
"I'm feeling really comfortable," he said. "I always like going into big games against teams like MACCRAY or Montevideo, with all the hype that comes with it, and trying to play my best."
Huot got a shot to play one of those big games right away, as Dawson-Boyd took on MACCRAY in the first game of the season. Taking on a team that hasn't lost a conference game in the last two seasons, the young Blackjacks struggled in a 66-47 Wolverine victory.
A bright spot for Dawson-Boyd in the loss was the play of Huot, who scored a game-high 17 points and showed his coach he was ready to handle the starting role.
"In the first game of the season, playing a team that's as highly touted as MACCRAY, they came out and put pressure on him on the perimeter," Larson said. "For a sophomore starting his first varsity game, he played with a ton of composure. He never gets rattled."
Huot has scored game highs in five of the six games Dawson-Boyd has played. One of his top performances came Dec. 28 in the Milbank Shootout against a tough Castlewood (S.D.) squad.
Larson said Castlewood had its best defender on Huot, but he still scored 15 of his team's first 18 points in the first quarter, including three three-pointers in Dawson-Boyd's first five possessions. Huot finished with 23 points in a 59-54 victory.
While Huot excels on the offensive end, Larson said his point guard is also a lock-down defender. Averaging 2.2 steals per game, Huot credits his AAU coach for pushing him to make sure he plays just as hard on defense as on offense.
"Defensively, he's excellent," Larson said. "The experience he's had playing top competition with the Comets has definitely helped him there.
"When he's on defense, it's tough to take him off the dribble because he can move so well laterally. Another thing is he's good at sitting in his defensive stance and not getting out of it. At this level, that breaks down with a lot of kids, but not with Nathaniel."
Dawson-Boyd's schedule has set up nicely for a young, growing team. Other than MACCRAY and Castlewood, the Blackjacks' opponents have a combined record of 5-19.
Huot is pleased with the start his team has gotten off to and hopes the players can carry the confidence they've built during their five-game winning streak through the rest of their schedule.
"I feel we're getting more under control," he said. "We've got a couple of games under our belt and everyone is starting to get on the same page. It's a totally different team this year, so we're just looking for everyone to get to where we're playing at the same level.
"We've just got to go into every game knowing we can win and knowing we can score and run with any team out there."
Larson said Huot has made strides this season getting his teammates involved, averaging 3.2 assists per game. He still feels Huot has room to grow to become a "more true point guard," but if there's one thing he's sure of as the season goes on, it's that the sophomore will keep working on his game to become a more complete player.
"He's got a desire to be the best. That's the thing," Larson said. "I don't think he's satisfied with even the type of season he's had so far. He thinks and knows he can become better."