BELLAIRE - Rough seasons have been few and far between in the history of Bellaire boys' basketball. The 2012-13 season, which resulted in a 3-20 record, certainly falls into the category of rough.
Third-year coach J.R. Battista by no means wants to experience such a season anytime soon. With nearly his entire cast returning and recognizing that some of its opponents suffered significant graduation losses, Bellaire is entering the new season with ''cautious optimism.''
''You would hope we can only go up from where we were,'' Battista said. ''Our guys have gotten better. Some have really committed themselves to getting shots up and improving their games. But, we realize there's a big difference in being competitive and winning. You have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run, so we're working to be competitive.
''You can't always quantify things strictly in wins and losses, because if you did last season was obviously a failure. I don't think it was a failure because the guys got better. But they just weren't good enough to compete with the teams we were playing.''
It seemed like each game last winter, Battista, a former all-Ohio player at Bellaire and all-conference player at West Liberty, stressed that the game of basketball is one of skill. So, how much more skilled will the Big Reds be?
"Our skill level has increased, but whether or not it's increased enough to equate into victories remains to be seen,'' Battista said. ''(Basketball) is the absolute greatest game of skill and if you have some, you can play and be a positive contributor to your team. If you have skill and athleticism to go along with it, you've got a chance to be really good."
Along with the maturation and improvement as players, Battista believes the physical maturation of his players is maybe the most important area of improvement.
''Last year we were playing a varsity schedule with a lot of young kids, but now we're playing with better bodies (physically),'' Battista said. ''We have senior and junior bodies now. We're getting there.''
The Big Reds were overmatched many nights out last season, but it certainly wasn't due to a lack of effort because Battista never once questioned his team's desire.
''We played a lot of teams that had a lot of really good high school players and many of them are now college athletes,'' Battista said. ''Obviously, when you're playing college sports, you're pretty good.''
The Big Reds boast a roster of 20 players in the upper three grades, which is an increase from last season.
Senior Kenny Hess (5-10) is the Big Reds' top returning player. He earned a myriad of postseason honors after a campaign in which he netted 16 points a game.
''Kenny spent all spring and summer working on shooting and he's gotten better,'' Battista said.
Junior guard Nathan Steele (5-10) was the Big Reds' second-leading scorer at around 12 points a night. He's also the team's best perimeter shooter and Battista is pleased with how many shots he's gotten up during the offseason.
''He was about 110 pounds last year, but he's gotten stronger and he's shooting the ball well,'' Battista said. ''He's added a stronger take (to the bucket), has gotten a lot faster.''
Junior Tyler Ramsey (6-4) and senior Ryan Callarik (6-3) are two bigger bodies who could give the Big Reds an interior presence they need on both ends. Both are quality rebounders and could take on bigger scoring roles.
''They can finish around the hoop and they're strong,'' Battista said.
Senior Wyatt Back (5-10) is an adept passer and can also shoot the ball well from the perimeter.
The lone sophomore slated to dress for the varsity unit is talented guard Michael Neil (6-0), who Battista was excited about.
''Michael's got a really good handle, he's our best passer and can make his teammates better,'' Battista said. ''We're going to ask a lot of out of him.''
Junior Hunter Westlake (6-0) will also be in the rotation. He lettered a season ago and is another athletic player who is solid on the glass and can defend.
Senior Collin Kimbro (5-10) is back and healthy after missing some time a year ago. Battista complimented his ability to apply ball pressure and handle the ball.
Senior Sterling Wright (6-0), who transferred from Martins Ferry, will also be in the mix. He's been a bright spot in scrimmages and could be an impact player.
Three seniors vying for minutes are Seth Pickens (5-10), Kyle Hess (6-0) and Robert Kovalyk (6-4). Two other juniors who are supplying depth are Nick Hall (5-10) and James Wiggins (5-10).
The balance of the sophomore class, which is seven deep, will comprise the jayvee team. That group includes Luke McDonough (6-3), Tyler Stewart (6-0), Josh Myers (6-0), Tylar Eden (5-8), Noah Harris (5-10) and Nathaniel Cumberlidge (5-10).
Battista's coaching staff includes John Poliek guiding the reserve squad. Nathan Regal has come on board to work with the high school team while Bruce Young is coaching the freshmen. Ben Doyle and Timmy Young guide the eighth and seventh graders, respectively.