Ceres High varsity boys basketball standout Austin Stiles believes improved team chemistry along with other key ingredients will produce desired results during the 2014-15 campaign.
"This year, we're more of a family," said Stiles, a junior guard/forward. "We're a lot closer. We're all friends. We're working harder. We aren't as big but we hustle a lot more. It's a whole different mindset. We just got to stay positive."
The top three teams in the Western Athletic Conference qualify for the playoffs.
The Bulldogs amassed a 13-13 overall record and placed fourth overall in the WAC standings (5-7) last season.
Ceres High secured its last postseason berth in 2012-13, finishing 14-13 on the year and third in the WAC (7-5).
"We just got to take it one game at a time," Stiles said. "We just got to keep working hard."
Stiles, Joshneil Sandhu (Sr.) and Nick Burt (Sr.) will lead the Bulldogs this year.
Fellow returners Puneet Sahi (Sr.), Johnathan Williams (Sr.) and Juan Anderson (Sr.), and newcomers Brad Bussard (Sr.), Ramon Coral (Sr.), Haaydn Martinez (So.), Ismael Ontiveros (So.), Xavier Mendoza (Jr.) and Trevor Nash (Jr.) will contribute as well.
Stiles, Sandhu and Burt all started a season ago.
Austin, formerly of Modesto Christian, trains at Bonsu Elite Athletics in Ceres.
He has a 40-plus-inch vertical leap.
Austin ranked fourth in scoring on last year's team.
He averaged 6.4 points per game.
"Last year, I was hesitant," Stiles said. "This year, I'm going to be more aggressive on offense and defense. Coach expects me to be a leader. I'll do whatever it takes to help my team win games."
"He's a positive kid," Ceres High head coach Julio Marquez said. "He has a good work ethic. He likes to be constantly active. He's strong with the ball. He can get to the hole. He knows the offense better now."
Sandhu, Ceres High's top threat from the perimeter, ranked second on the team in scoring as a junior. Joshneil averaged 7.2 points per game and shot 30 percent (43 of 143) from 3-point range.
"He's a streaky shooter," Marquez said. "He has pretty good range."
Burt, a post player, ranked sixth on the team in scoring (4.9 ppg) his junior year.
"He's a tough matchup because of his size, speed and strength," Marquez said.
Martinez and Ontiveros give the Bulldogs depth at the guard position.
Haaydn and Ismael helped propel Ceres High's frosh boys basketball squad to a 20-5 overall record and second-place finish in the WAC during the 2013-14 school year.
Coral and Bussard last played hoops for Ceres High at the junior-varsity level (20-6, 10-2) in 2012-13.
Brad, a quarterback, and Ramon, a lineman, took last season off to focus on football.
"The deal was for me to play football and they'd play basketball," Stiles said.
Ceres High will face off against crosstown-rival Central Valley twice this year.
The Bulldogs lost a pair of WAC games to the Hawks last season. Central Valley prevailed 75-52 and 66-54.
The Hawks have one of the best backcourts in the Stanislaus District in Jaron Dickson and Daevon Brown.
Stiles and Brown both attended Modesto Christian together before transferring to Ceres schools.
"It will be more competitive this year," Stiles said.
Barring injuries or other setbacks, Ceres High could return to the playoffs following a year absence.
"If we stay healthy, we can compete for a league championship," Marquez said.
"We've been running like crazy," said Stiles, who's dropped 10 pounds from his athletic frame. "We're a hard-working team."