COLUMBIA — Nick Norton has seen paradise. And he is ready to go back.
As a freshman, the point guard played significant minutes for the Rock Bridge boys basketball team that lost 57-45 in the semifinals of the 2010-11 Class 5 state tournament. As a junior, he is prepared to take full command of a leadership role for the Bruins.
Rock Bridge boys vs. East Kansas City, 4 p.m. Friday at Central Kansas City High School
Hickman girls vs. Moberly, 6 p.m. Friday at Columbia College (Norm Stewart Classic)
Hickman boys vs. Westminster, 7 p.m. Friday at Troy Buchanan High School
Hickman boys vs. Waynesville, 5 p.m. Saturday at Columbia College (Norm Stewart Classic)
Rock Bridge boys vs. CBC, 8 p.m. Saturday at Columbia College (Norm Stewart Classic)
Rock Bridge girls vs. Blue Springs, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Columbia College (Norm Stewart Classic)
"State was a blast my freshman year," he said. "(I) learned a lot from it. Big crowd. Third quarter, fourth quarter we kind of let it get to us and gave it up, but I learned from it, so I can teach it to the newcomers."
There will be plenty of newcomers to teach. The Bruins lost eight players from last season's team.
One of the holes to fill is the one left by guard Travis Jorgenson. A highly touted prospect who once had an oral commitment to MU, Jorgenson transferred to New Hampton School in New Hampton, N.H., for his senior season.
Norton has filled those shoes before. When Jorgenson missed more than a month last season with a thumb injury, Norton stepped forward as one of the main contributors for the Bruins.
"He took it upon himself to be a leader, even though he was a sophomore. He played as a freshman significant minutes on varsity, so I think it just translated to being able to handle a bigger role," assistant coach Quentin Mitchell said.
Norton said this experience will benefit him as he readies for the Bruins' 2012-2013 campaign.
"Very much so," he said. "And Travis was a good leader and helped me when I needed help."
Last year's squad reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament before losing by four points to a Nixa team they had defeated earlier in the season. Despite the exodus of seniors and Jorgenson, coach Jim Scanlon said he is focused on the players still wearing the Rock Bridge green and gold.
"You really kind of forget about the guys you lost because you gotta move on," he said. "We're fine. Everybody's got to get better as an individual, and we have to get better as a team, but I'm happy with these guys."
Norton said he tries to assist the new guys without getting negative. Mitchell said Norton has the qualities for the job.
"He's mentally tough. Anything you do, you have to be mentally tough. He's very coachable. And he works hard. You got those three things, and you can be successful at pretty much anything you do," he said.
Mitchell said he expects the newcomers to do surprisingly well and, come playoff time, play as well as last season's team.
"We run a program, so we try to develop our young guys all the time," Mitchell said. "Sometimes we have guys that are good enough to play varsity, but we play them on JV to get them extra minutes to develop. We've been lucky to have a pretty good transition of guys to come up on varsity and contribute right away. So, I think it will be the same road. And it's tradition, it seems like, guys just ready to play and wait for their turn, and it's just becoming to the point where you lose a guy and another one steps up."
Another part of the Bruins tradition? Winning. Scanlon said Rock Bridge's recent success should provide a bit of a confidence boost for his current players.
"I think everybody thinks that," he said. "It's not gonna win us any games, but I think from our success everybody feels confident in our basketball program, how we play and what we do and hope we can just maintain that."
The Bruins play their first game of the season Friday at East High School (Kansas City) in the Jack Bush Tip Off Classic at Central High School.
"I think everybody knows we can be good if we work, and everybody has come to work every day of practice," Norton said. "So hopefully it'll show up in games."