Even before the opening tip, Nathaniel Huot had people's attention. Players, opposing coaches, officials, fans...everyone in the gym found their eyes attracted to Huot's feet that were laced up in his fluorescent, tennis ball-yellow basketball shoes - not exactly a great match with the Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks' black, white and gold uniforms. It was a bold choice for a sneaker selection, but Huot said he didn't get the shoes because he wanted to stand out.
"I'm just really into shoes I guess and I just really liked them when I saw them," Huot said. "I was kind of browsing one day during football season and I saw them and I'm like, 'Mom, can I get these?' And she's like, 'You really want to get those?' And I said, 'Yeah, I really do.' She was like, 'Well, then I guess you can.'
"My parents have always told me, 'Don't be cocky at all. If you're going to get those shoes, you have to be confident.' Whenever I wore them into the game I was just confident in myself and that we were going to win this game."
After Dawson-Boyd's games, people left the gym talking not about Huot's footwear, but about his skills on the court. The 6-foot junior guard with a sweet
shooting stroke led the Blackjacks in scoring at 16.9 points per game during the team's 26-3 season and led the area with 67 made three-pointers. He also averaged 3.6 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game while helping Dawson-Boyd to a runner-up finish in the Section 3A tournament.
Huot, the 2012 Independent Player of the Year, didn't need his shoes to light up a gym. He has the game to do that himself. He ignited Dawson-Boyd crowds and overwhelmed opponents with his barrages of three-pointers during the season. He had three games in which he made six shots from downtown, and two games in which he drilled five threes.
"He definitely has the potential to take over the game," said Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson. "A lot of people focus on his outside shooting because he shoots it pretty effortlessly, but he handles the ball extremely well. He's quick with the basketball, and I think that's something that can get overlooked and it's part of what makes him effective offensively."
One of Huot's game-changing performances came in one of the Blackjacks' biggest games of the season when they took on Camden Conference rival MACCRAY in the Section 3A-North final at the R/A Facility in Marshall. With the two teams locked into a tight game, Huot made three three-pointers in the final 2 minutes, 35 seconds of the first half, including one with three seconds remaining, to help Dawson-Boyd take a 36-24 lead into the locker room. Huot hit six threes in the game on his way to a season-high 28 points, and he also dished out seven assists as the Blackjacks ousted the defending section champions 78-62.
MACCRAY had defeated Dawson-Boyd by 19 or more points three different times in the 2010-11 season and knocked the Blackjacks out of the Section 3A tournament. The two teams split a pair of close games during the regular season this year, and when they met up yet again in the sub-section finals, Huot said he felt he had to raise his game to help make sure Dawson-Boyd would extend its season.
"I feel like if there's a challenge set before me, like in big games, playoff games, or like our conference championship game this year," Huot said, "it's those big games where it's win or go home where I feel I have to be a leader and step up for my team and have to do whatever I need to do to help our team be successful in those games."
While Huot was the player on his team most capable of exploding for a huge scoring night, he said the Blackjacks were able to become one of Class A's top teams this season because of the collective improvement of a host of players.
"I think a big thing was we had a little more post game this year than we had last year, that's for sure," Huot said. "We had more leaders on the court, and I think overall this year that we had more scorers on the court. My sophomore year we didn't have too many people who could put up a consistent 10-15 per game, and this year with our starting five everyone was very consistent throughout the whole season."
And during the first five games of the season, it was those other players who had to carry the team.
Huot watched from the sidelines over the first handful of game while he was recovering from a hand injury sustained near the end of the football season. A cornerback/receiver for the Blackjacks, Huot broke the metacarpal bone of his right pointer finger during the team's first-round state tournament game. He played through the pain and helped the Blackjacks win the Class A state championship, the first state title in school history, but had to wear a cast on his shooting hand after the season.
Even without Huot, the Blackjacks started the season with five straight wins, including a 75-67 victory over then-fifth-ranked Maranatha Christian Academy in their first game. Sophomore Joey Lee moved into the point guard position for Dawson-Boyd and excelled there, nearly recording a triple-double in that season-opening win.
Huot rejoined the team six games into the season, scoring 14 points on 5 of 10 shooting just two days after getting his cast removed. He continued to gain strength in his forearm and wrist as the days went on and got the chance to show what he had done to improve his game over the summer after what was a strong sophomore campaign.
"We really tried to get him more into playing inside of 20 feet and I thought he did an excellent job and continues to improve that part of his game," Larson said. "We also felt we needed him to step up certain games and defend the best perimeter player from the other team, and he certainly had some excellent defensive games this year as well."
Rounding into form after getting his cast off, Huot said it didn't take long for him to get acclimated with players like seniors Zach Stelter, Evan Robertson and Jack Hansen, and especially not with sophomore Joey Lee and freshman forward Michael Lee. Huot said he has a special connection on the court with Joey Lee, as the two have played basketball with each other for the past several years.
"We were playing basketball together in second grade when we couldn't even shoot at all," Huot said. "Same with Michael (Lee), he used to play 2-on-2 with us.
"We just read each other very well from playing with each other over the years and we understand what Coach Larson wants us to do when we're out there. It just all flows. When me and him have the ball creating for each other or creating for anyone else and when we get defensive stops and get up and down, that's when I think me and him really get a good feel for the game and that's when we start clicking really well as a team."
The Blackjacks were clicking pretty much all the way through the season, winning the Camden Conference crown and rising up to No. 4 in the Class A state rankings. But Dawson-Boyd was unable to earn the chance to add another state title to its trophy case, as the Blackjacks were ousted by 6-9 senior center Zach Huisken and a hot-shooting Southwest Minnesota Christian team in the Section 3A final.
After helping the Blackjacks to seven more wins than last season and getting to the section title game, Huot said it didn't take long after the season ended for him to turn his attention to what it's going to require for Dawson-Boyd to take another step forward during his upcoming senior year.
"I didn't start looking ahead until after the state tournament because I was kind of evaluating teams in other sections, like how we'd do against this team or that team and how they'd play against us," Huot said. "I'd say the day after the state tournament was done I started thinking about next season.
"I was glad to play with all the seniors we have this year and we're going to miss them next year, so we're going to have to fill some holes. I'm already looking into this year's ninth-grade class and this year's 10th-grade class and who we can develop into role players and hopefully we can get past that section game next year."