Down 15 points to No. 4 Fremont late in the first half last Friday night, Bellevue East guard Eric Lenear attacked the basket after a turnover, took two off the deficit just before the buzzer and gave the Chieftains at least a little optimism heading to the locker room.
Lenear has tried to keep coming that way this season despite Bellevue East being winless through 15 games.
Part of it comes with his belief in what coach Chad Mustard is trying to build in his second season.
“I can tell that he has a plan for the future, and not just one or two years,” Lenear said.
Part is knowing how he can not only help, but maybe also get some players around him to follow.
“It’s really got me going, and I make sure that I don’t get my head down on wins and losses but make sure I keep looking forward,” Lenear said. “We’re a pretty young team, so maybe being a leader is going to help a lot with our young guys.”
Lenear is flying under the radar this season in the Metro Conference with Bellevue East trying to lay a new foundation, but Mustard has appreciated the efforts of his 6-foot-1 junior. Lenear is averaging 12.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
“He is a quality player to build around,” Mustard said. “We’re just trying to find those guys to step up and go with him.”
Mustard is the former Columbus High and University of North Dakota basketball and football star who played five seasons as an NFL tight end. After being an assistant at Bellevue West and Millard West, he took over at Bellevue East before the 2014-15 season.
Lenear had played as a freshman the previous year and then was surrounded by six seniors as a sophomore, but this season was going to be different.
Bellevue East has just one senior, who plays sparingly. It also has worked around losing two players to injuries (Ethan Nelson, Hunter Mengel) and is trying to compete with two freshmen in its regular rotation.
Losing Nelson has forced Lenear to handle the ball more than Mustard would like, and lack of consistent shooters hasn’t allowed the Chieftains to spread the floor and help with Lenear getting to the basket.
That, Mustard said, is his specialty.
“He’s definitely a slasher,” Mustard said. “His body control and his ability to get to the rim are unique for high school players. He just has that knack to get that shoulder by, or Euro-step through. Then he’s gained about 10 to 15 pounds, which helps him finish.”
Lenear is working on his jump shooting and range, but he’s gotten more comfortable with pushing his teammates on the court and tried to raise his defensive level to meet Mustard’s demands.
“I’ve got way better at defense and picking up my defensive intensity,” he said. “I know I used to kind of relax on defense, to save energy for offense. But I’ve learned how to fight through it.”
Lenear played last summer on Omaha Sports Academy’s top 16-and-under team, which featured a guard-heavy roster that included the likes of Shae Wyatt of Millard West, Ty Duin of Gretna, Justin Costello of Elkhorn South and Omaha North’s Jordan Nash and Anthony Laravie. His older brother, Trevor, is a sophomore at York College, and Mustard said Lenear is getting some NAIA interest but still could develop into an NCAA Division II-level recruit.
Lenear right now is focused on trying to make the best of this season, and point Bellevue East toward better times next winter.
“It can get you down, especially after a big loss by a lot of points,” he said. “But the coaches are always right there after the game with me, saying keep my head up and stay positive.
“I feel like next year we’re going to be really good, and be able to compete in the Metro better. It’s really positive seeing that next year we’re going to have a lot more experience, and we’re going to get in the gym in the summer and the weight room and become a lot bigger and stronger.”
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