With Elk Grove looming large as Delta Valley Conference basketball play opens Wednesday on the road for the Davis High boys, you can bet that when the Blue Devils chips are down, guard Hayden Russell will be all in.
The DHS offensive laser show cut through 15 pre-league opponents with a 9-6 record, averaging 90 points per game.
When asked who Russell thought might be his team’s biggest challenge to a possible DVC title, the senior co-captain was candid:
“Our biggest obstacle … will be ourselves,” the high-octane scorer explained. “With the way we play, if we don’t show up for a game, it is almost impossible to win. With that said, I think we have the right guys — and the guys all want to win.
“We have a deep roster and everyone can contribute. (That’s) something most teams don’t have.”
Russell, who lives with mom Carol Atkins, dad John Russell and 14-year-old brother Parker in Woodland, transferred to Davis to attend Da Vinci High.
A veteran of soccer and track before entering high school, Russell dropped those two sports to focus on his love of hoops.
Now, averaging 22 ppg, Russell has raised eyebrows through Northern California, especially last month in the Scattini Tournament in Salinas.
“He was incredible,” Devil coach Dan Gonzalez told The Enterprise. “People were hanging out after their games to watch us and Hayden play. If we weren’t playing, fans were asking about us.”
In the opening game of that invitational, Russell scored a career-high 41 points but DHS lost, 87-84, to powerhouse Everett Alvarez (11-3). As an all-tournament selection, Russell tallied a tourney-high 88 points.
“He really is the heart and soul of this team,” Gonzalez said. “And to that, you see he’s on the court more and more.”
In a scheme (called The System) that lives by wearing the other team out, the Blue Devils substituted out all five players in quick shifts during last year’s 14-12 season. Gonzalez has since tweaked the rotation, leaving Russell on the court for extended periods (like he has with junior Brandon Strong and seniors Kevin Sorensen and Grant Dickerson).
The results have been positive. Russell’s average has improved by almost 10 points from a year ago, and Davis is scoring eight points a game more than 2011-12.
“I really enjoy playing in a fast, up-tempo style,” Russell says with a smile. “Ever since I was little, I have always enjoyed fast-breaking and trying to keep the tempo at a high pace.
“I remember always watching North Carolina play and telling my mom that was my favorite style and ‘That is the type of basketball I wanted to play.’
“In our current scheme, my responsibilities are creating shots for others (and myself) while maintaining the fast-paced action.”
When asked about who has been his biggest basketball influence, he quickly points to mom Carol: “She gave me my first basketball and taught me how to play. Even today, she’s pushing me to my maximum potential and … telling me ways I can get better.”
Mom’s a good source. Carol Atkins was a standout athlete at old Delta High in Clarksburg before moving on to excel on the court at St. Mary’s in the rugged West Coast Conference.
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Russell is cat quick (his assists and steals lead the team) and is an 85-percent free-throw shooter. He and Dickerson are lights-out defenders and Russell can bomb from beyond the arc with the best of ‘em.
But last season, with DHS putting up an average of 85 shots a game and substituting every 50 to 90 seconds, Russell’s accomplishments were fuzzied by limited playing time.
This year, there is little doubt where Davis’ bread is buttered.
But college programs have been slow to react to Russell and a Division III school could find a program-changing player in this Blue Devil.
“I definitely want to play at the next level,” he says. “I haven’t really had any serious talks with D-I schools, so right now I’m exploring … Willamette (Oregon), Redlands and Whitman (Washington) are the most likely.”
It’s not surprising that Russell has taken a leadership role on campus, too.
He’s a Friendship Day facilitator, working in monthly sessions to help students cross social barriers, creating new pals “that they normally wouldn’t make.”
In the classroom, Russell loves history and science and can see himself pursuing a career in law, but at this point kinesiology or sports medicine appear to be likely majors. He also wants to keep studying political science.
With such a full plate, when Russell finds time to relax, it’s a complete shutdown …
“Outside of school I like to relax and hangout with friends and family. I really enjoy sitting down and watching a movie.”
After this season, Russell probably will get to add one more flick to his film library — a highlight reel of what he’s helped DHS accomplish this winter.
Notes: Gonzalez, in his 15th year at the helm, has twice made the playoffs but hasn’t earned a league crown. He said winning DVC this year would be “huge (personally) … and a big step up for how the area sees our Davis basketball program.” … Russell’s parents are both scientists with the State of California. … The Devils tip-off with The Thundering Herd on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Elk Grove. Last year, the two squads split their games. DHS missed the playoffs because of a season-finale loss to Elk Grove (10-7).
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.