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(Courtesy Photo)

(Courtesy Photo)

It’s been a busy offseason to say the least for the Runnin’ ‘Dog basketball team.

Between integrating transfer students and formulating a game plan for the 2016-17 season, Bulldog head coach Michael Mondragon had another welcome task: working with a full gym.

Last year’s City of Champions Classic found the ‘Dogs receiving their traditional baptism by fire, with 11 of their 12 varsity athletes coming in cold from football. And while their three returning starters find themselves in that situation this year, the bulk of Artesia’s roster has been on the hardwood since the practice season began.

“We had a scrimmage here three weeks ago, and the boys looked good,” Mondragon said today. “They looked confident, and they’ve been learning a lot. This is by far the most guys we’ve had with us before the season actually started. Then we just add reinforcements with some great athletes from football.

“They’re playing hard, they’re being coachable, they’re really unselfish and sharing the ball. Now I just want to see us come out and carry all that over into the game. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The Bulldogs’ three returning lettermen from a 2015-16 squad that was edged in the first round of the playoffs by eventual Class 5A runner-up Capital include junior forward Taylor Null, junior post Joe Willingham, and senior guard Ethan Duff, still three to four weeks away from taking the court due to surgery.

Joining the program anew this year are a trio of transfers, including 5’8” senior guard Devon Torres from Hagerman, 5’10” senior guard Caleb Dean from Arlington, Texas, and 6’7” guard/post Bryce McAlister from Carlsbad.

“All three of them will help us,” said Mondragon. “All three are great additions to our team, and they’re basketball gym rats just like half of the other guys on our team. They love being in the gym and getting after it.

“They’ve been with us since August, so it’s been good to have them learning the system and our philosophies. It’s going to be a fun year all the way around. We’ve got a great group of guys, we’re very deep, we’re big, we’ve got good guards… we’re looking for fun things.”

As per usual, the Bulldogs will have ample evidence of where they stand heading into the new season thanks to the three-day basketball gamut that is the City of Champs.

“The biggest thing for us right now is just mentally getting ready to play basketball,” said Mondragon. “We’ve got eight guys total coming over from football. They’re definitely not going to have their basketball feet underneath them, but we do have five guys that have been with us since Halloween, and I know they’re anxious and ready to go.

“There’s a lot of new faces this year, so it’s just a matter of getting them to gel together. There’s going to be a lot of first-game jitters. I know the boys are excited and anxious, but like I told them this morning, if they play hard, have fun, and play together, all the scoring and stuff will take care of itself.”

The ‘Dogs will be opening their tournament run at 8 p.m. today at Bulldog Pit against a Chaparral Lobo team with six games already under its belt, and Mondragon is looking for three primary things as his team kicks off the year.

“I want them to really take care of the ball, I want them to execute on the offensive and defensive ends, and I also want them to have fun,” said the coach. “They play basketball because they love it and enjoy it, so if they do those three things, we’ll be fine.

“I want to thank everybody who’s allowed us to put on this tournament. I know this is a fun time for Artesia. There are a lot of great teams here, and we want to thank everybody in the community who’s donated, whether it be a sponsorship or food for the hospitality room, and I want to encourage all the fans of Artesia to come out and get behind these guys at 8 o’clock. Let them see a big crowd and the start of a great season for our basketball program.”