Basketball: Transfer bolsters high hopes for Eureka Springs

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Between the uncertainty created by COVID-19 and a questionable decision by 2A-1 superintendents that cost his team a potential opportunity to play a first-round district tournament game on its home floor, Eureka Springs coach Brian Rambo was so frustrated by the end of the last basketball season that he says he didn’t sleep for a week.

Rambo is likely to rest better this coming season as the Highlanders seem to have all the pieces to compete for a conference championship and maybe more.

Eureka Springs already was returning four starters — including a dynamic scorer in senior guard Matthew Lester and a 6-10 anchor in the middle in junior Michael Holloway. Senior Kegley Ertel will be a three-year starter at forward and senior Braden Gerth will move to point guard this season to lessen the load on Lester. All of that was enough to be excited about the Highlanders’ prospects — even before Eureka Springs added 6-3 junior forward Dylan Johnson, a transfer from Welch, Okla., who averaged 19.7 points a game as a sophomore last season.

“He’s a tremendous player,” Rambo said. “And when you add him with Matthew Lester and Shane and all the guys we’ve got coming back, you have the chance to be pretty special.”

Lester has started since the first game of his freshman season, when the Highlanders won 34 games and claimed district and regional tournament championships. That team was dominated by a talented group of seniors and Lester was able to settle into his role without being overwhelmed. Over the past two seasons, however, he’s been counted on as the team’s top scoring threat and ball-handler and has often faced extra attention from opposing defenses.

Moving Gerth to the point, and adding Johnson, should give Lester a little more breathing room.

“That’s the kind of thing that we ran into last year with Matthew was that he had to do so much of the scoring and so much of the ball-handling that at times of the game, he just got worn down,” Rambo said. “So having Dylan with the ability to handle the basketball and Brayden Gerth has really developed at the one. He played some one at his former school and he’s really developed in the last two or three or four months. And so we’re going to try to move him to the one and move Matthew to the two and get him off the basketball. Let Brayden create for Matthew, and he ought to be pretty dangerous. He’s been pretty good so far this summer.”

Rebounding and interior defense should be strengths for the Highlanders as well, thanks to their size.

“We’re going to be huge. We’re going to be 6-3, 6-3, 6-10,” Rambo said, referring to Johnson, Ertel and Holloway. “We’re going to be pretty big and athletic. I haven’t had a bunch like that in a few years so I’m looking forward to it.”

To top off the good news for Eureka Springs, the Highlanders have had plenty of time to prepare for next season, with a full summer schedule free from COVID-19 concerns.

“Last year you didn’t have the summer and didn’t have the opportunity to play in the preseason, that sort of thing,” Rambo said. “You never could get in your rhythm and couldn’t get consistency. And so having these guys in the summertime — we’ve played 14 games already this summer, which is almost the same number of games (20) we played the entire season last year. So having those guys together in the summertime has been huge. It’s going to pay huge dividends. Yeah, it’s really exciting for sure.”

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