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Jon'il Fugett George Washington
Kyle Newman, The Denver Post
Senior guard Jon’il Fugett highlights a George Washington team intent on making its way back to the Class 5A state championship this season after taking runner-up to Eaglecrest last year.
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George Washington senior point guard Jon’il Fugett remembers the moments following last season’s Class 5A title loss to Eaglecrest with painful clarity: The Raptors danced around midcourt with the trophy, while the Patriots stood in silence on the baseline after the team’s bid for its first championship since 1994 came up six points short.

So when it comes to this winter — when the No. 7 Patriots are again equipped with elite talent and size — Fugett and his teammates always have that motivating tableau in the forefront of their minds.

“It’s not hard to stay focused,” Fugett said. “That title loss was fatal — a lot of us felt it, and I can definitely tell you that I felt it. It’s been driving all of us since that day.”

In addition to Fugett, the Patriots also return senior shooting guard Shawn’Trell White, sophomore guard Devin Carter II, senior strong forward Mohammad Diallo and senior power forward Tre Pierce.

Diallo (6-foot-6) and Pierce (6-foot-9) give the Patriots tall, bruising presences in the paint, while on the perimeter a pair of transfers in senior Xavier Cooper (Thomas Jefferson) and junior JoVon Nelson (Chaparral) provide George Washington with alternative scoring options.

“We lost three key kids to graduation, but we’ve got about seven more seniors who played on the team last year,” said George Washington coach Reggie Hammons Jr. “This year, we’re a bit deeper than last year, and we should get back to the championship — it’s really championship or bust.”

Those high expectations will fall largely upon the shoulders of Fugett to fulfill, as the senior will be key in order for the Patriots to defend their Denver Prep League title — won by way of an overtime shootout over Denver East on the last day of the 2016-17 regular season — and then play their way back to the Denver Coliseum.

“During the summer, I worked on the little stuff like mid-range shooting and trying to get my handles tighter in order to add to my game and perfect the craft,” Fugett said. “And I worked on being even more vocal on the court, because me and the other guys who played in last year’s state championship game serve as leaders — if someone’s out of line, we have to check them in order to be successful.”

The Patriots’ depth will also get a nice boost in January, when another transfer, 6-foot-9 center Malik Patton, becomes eligible.

And while this year’s George Washington team embraces the program’s typical trademarks — an up-tempo, above-the-rim play — Hammons emphasized the ability to slow the game down will also make the Patriots dangerous down the stretch.

“Half-court sets are going to be the key for us,” Hammons said. “And we’ve also got a bunch of guards where we can press up and play the style we like to play, where we use our length and athleticism to our advantage. So if we stay disciplined, it should be a fun year.”

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