Hayden boys basketball coach Shawn Baumgartner isn't having fun this season.
"I'm having a blast," he said.
Smiles are easy to find on the basketball court in Hayden these days, where the boys are in the midst of a season that no one predicted when practice began in November.
Hayden failed to win a game two years ago. Last season, Baumgartner's first as coach, the Tigers showed steady improvement but went only 4-17.
This season, the Tigers notched their fourth win by their sixth game and have since gone on to post a 12-5 overall record, including a 4-3 mark in the Western Slope League, defeating opponents such as Grand Valley, North Park and past nemesis West Grand.
Baumgartner expected the boys' program to be successful eventually, but he didn't anticipate the Tigers would be near the top of the league by his second season.
"It is surprising, in a way, how quickly things have turned around," he said. "I don't know if it's anything I've done. I've showed them a system, and you have to give them credit for believing in it and executing it."
Baumgartner's system stresses defense and the importance of taking high-percentage shots. The change in offensive and defensive strategies forced the Tigers to adjust their up-tempo style, junior Chris Frentress said.
"We used to run and gun," he said. "We needed discipline."
Last season, Baumgartner solely focused on installing his system and didn't emphasize winning, believing that if Hayden followed the game plan, the victories would come. It is a style of basketball that has produced positive results and an overwhelming sense of unity this year.
"He taught us to trust each other," senior Dustin Driscoll said. "Coach showed us how to play as a team. He tells us our roles, and you realize that's how you play."
While there were glimpses of progress last season, Baumgartner and several players said the Tigers started coming together last summer during camps and tournaments against larger Front Range schools. Hayden played nearly 25 games in June, and almost every player was present for each game.
But, Baumgartner said, success rests largely on the leadership provided by the team's seniors, the few it has. Before the season, Baumgartner pulled Driscoll and seniors Ryan Bell and Jared Alpe aside and discussed with them the importance of leading by example in games and practice.
It was a gamble considering that last year, Bell was on the junior varsity team, Driscoll played in nine games and Alpe started but frequently was in and out.
All three listened, and all three have taken their games to new levels, Baumgartner said.
"I told them we will go as far as you're willing to take us, not as far as you want to go, but as far as you're willing to take us," he said.
Not to be left out, the juniors on the team improved, too. Frentress and fellow guard Cam Whiteman struggled with the responsibility of running the offense and breaking a press as sophomores.
This year, their maturity and confidence in themselves and each other is evident. With classmate Evan Hilling, the trio provides Baumgartner with hope for next season, as well.
"When coach came, we loved him. He was exciting and he believed in us and that's the best thing," Hilling said. "We know we can beat anybody now. No one has one thing they do great. We all are good when we work together."