COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa — The Columbus Junction boys basketball program has had its share of struggles over the years.
Entering this season, the Wildcats had only won two games in the previous three seasons, which includes two winless seasons in 2017-18 and 2015-16. The current team didn’t have a single player its roster who had won a game at the varsity level.
That changed last Friday when Columbus made quick work of Winfield-Mount Union in a 53-29 road win.
“We went down there really confident,” Columbus junior Eric Valdez said. “We told each other we were going to come out with the win, and we did.”
The win broke a 26-game skid for the program, and it’s the first time the Wildcats have won at least one of their first four contests since the 2013-14 season when they finished 5-17. After a handful of missed opportunities at a win turned into a 0-22 season a year ago, Columbus Junction coach Dave Lekwa expressed relief that the Wildcats finally have “the monkey off their back.”
“It’s nice, whether you’ve lost 26 in a row or it’s just the first win of the season,” Lekwa said. “Most of these kids are aware this program has struggled for a long time. Long before any of these kids were here and long before I was here.
“Anytime you get a win it’s a confidence booster.”
The win was fueled by Valdez, who scored 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting and also added six assists, four steals and four rebounds for the Wildcats. Lekwa cited Valdez’s defense and his focus on attacking the basket as two reasons for Valdez producing what he felt was the best game he’s ever played for the Wildcats.
“I didn’t realize I had 24 points until two days after,” Valdez said. “Somebody told me, and I was like, 'Oh dang.' I got to the free throw line a lot, and that helped.”
Valdez is averaging 16.5 points per game on 61.9 percent shooting from the field, a big improvement over his 5.5 points per game on 31.5 percent shooting as a sophomore. Valdez credits his increased focus on attacking the basket while his coach says improved shot selection has also played a role.
None of that is a surprise to Lekwa after the offseason of work the junior put in.
“We spent a ton of time in the offseason working on stuff,” Lekwa said. “Everything from his shot to his footwork and ball handling. He was blowing up my phone weekly.
“I’ve wanted that for years. You always get a couple of kids who want to come out a little bit, but he was serious about it. He wanted to get up (to the gym) as much as possible.”
Both Lekwa and Valdez knew the junior shooting guard turned point guard would have a larger role on a team with just one senior. That, coupled with last year’s struggles, motivated Valdez to improve in areas such as his ballhandling, getting to the rim and becoming stronger.
“In the summer that’s all I could think about,” Valdez said of going 0-22 a season ago. “I had all those teams on my mind every day. It really pushes me to outwork anybody in the gym and any other school.”
However, Lekwa knows it’s only going to get more difficult for Valdez after his early season success.
“He’s going to have ups and downs,” Lekwa said. “When you only have one true bullet in your gun, teams that are bigger and stronger are going to come in and try to take that bullet out.”
However, both Valdez and Lekwa know this season is a building year. With a roster filled with first-time varsity players, both are hopeful the Wildcats can improve and build a foundation they can improve upon next year.
Certainly, with Valdez running the point, there’s reason for optimism.
“The thing I’ve been most impressed by is his level of maturity,” Lekwa said. “He wants the younger kids to get better. He knows that it’s working, and it’s a process. But he’s been excellent with the younger kids.”