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The Westfield boys basketball team can point to a number of factors that might explain their rocky 2-2 start to this season. For one, several players on their roster are coming off a grueling, 13-game football season that finished up just five days prior to the basketball team’s season opener. Those six players, including key contributors Chris Mullins and Christian Gray, had to eschew offseason rest in favor of shifting their bodies and minds into basketball mode.

More than that, though, the Bulldogs’ early struggles can probably be attributed to a lack of cohesion in a starting lineup featuring four fresh faces. Most of the key contributors to last season’s Northern Region championship team have graduated, including 6-foot-10 big man Zach Elcano, 6-foot-4 forward Quentin Basil, and guards Julius Rosa and Mark Gibson.

Those losses have heaped a sudden load of responsibility onto the shoulders of senior swingman C.J. Hill, the team’s lone returning starter. Whereas he could often defer to his teammates’ hot hands last year, the 6-foot-2 guard/forward has been tasked with taking matters into his own hands entering his final season.

“He’s learning that last year he wasn’t getting everybody’s best defender,” Westfield coach Doug Ewell said. “This year he’s getting everybody’s best defender. That takes maturity and some patience at times. He’s learning. It’s a tough task. It’s something you’ve got to get used to. But I think he’s doing a great job of growing, and I think his teammates around him are relieving some pressure.”

Indeed, Hill is hardly Westfield’s only threat to put the ball in the hole this year. Joining him this season is a high-flying transfer from Fredericksburg named Trevon Walton, a 6-foot-4 wing with good range and an explosive first step to the basket. Walton has reached double digits in three of Westfield’s first four games, including the team-high 23 points he dropped Tuesday night against Washington-Lee. Senior guard Christian Gray, a wide receiver for the football team, showed his scoring prowess Tuesday with 23 points of his own. Brandon Williams and Chauncey Beckett are two more senior guards capable of filling a stat sheet for a team that boasts nine seniors this season.

With all that talent at their disposal, Westfield coaches and players believe it’s only a matter of time before the team starts jelling.

“We just need to learn through practices,” Hill said before practice Monday night, their first with the full team on hand. “We haven’t had any real practices. Having our football players back and having a new player, we haven’t really had any practices to work on what we need to do. Now that we’re back into practices we should be fine in the long run.”

The Bulldogs opened the season with a 67-59 loss against Lake Braddock last Wednesday. They received balanced, double-digit scoring from Walton, Hill, Beckett and Williams, but struggled to contain 6-foot-6 sophomore Reagan Jones, who finished with a game-high 29 points. Following wins against West Springfield and Madison, Westfield fell to Washington-Lee, 77-74, after Alex Seff nailed a game-winning halfcourt shot with 1.2 seconds left in overtime.

Each of those performances presented disappointing defensive efforts for a team that held all but three opponents to under 60 points during last year’s 24-5 season.

“We didn’t play Westfield defense,” Ewell said. “We let our defense speak for our offense, so we expect to be really good defensively, and we weren’t [in those games]. They exposed a lot of weaknesses that we had. So we’ll learn from it and get better.”

Last season’s region title, the first in school history, represented a high-water mark for Westfield basketball. Despite some early adversity facing the new-look squad around him, Hill believes they can do it again.

“I want to lead the team back to states,” Hill said. “I feel like we left some unfinished business there.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com