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Basketball: Horizon boys embracing underdog role in quest for three-peat

When the Horizon Christian boys basketball team beat Pinecrest Academy 44-43 on Feb. 3, the Warriors and their student section were "going crazy," in the words of senior guard Alex Dahlberg, and even stormed the court. Dahlberg then had to explain to his friends at Pinecrest the reason for all the excitement. 

It wasn't just the first time Horizon had beaten a GHSA school: It was the first time the Warriors had played one at all. 

"I think they were expecting to beat us, definitely," Dahlberg said this week. "And they weren't really expecting what we had in store."

The Warriors are once again among the most competitive programs in the GICAA this year and are a threat to win another state basketball title, which would be their third in a row. But this season has been one of change and evolution for Horizon, and not just the successful kind seen in the program's incursion into the GHSA. 

Horizon, whose record currently sits at 14-5, lost seven seniors off of last year's championship team, including captains Andrew Leonard and Daniel "D-Bo" Durnwald. That's forced players like Dahlberg and forwards Mason Bierster and Michael Gul to assume more complete roles on the team, with Dahlberg looking to score more, Bierster getting starter-level minutes and Gul expanding his game beyond the rebounding-first bulldog he was in the past. 

"Last year, I was the 'trash player,' as you can call it," Gul said. "I just got boards and passed it, but now since our two most important players left, I need to step up."

The adjustments haven't been seamless for the Warriors, though. 

"One of the biggest differences in this team is kids not really wanting to accept their roles," Horizon head coach Damon Taylor said. "Versus last year, those guys kind of were like, 'Hey, they know I'm going to accept this role, and I'm just going to go with it.'"

Even with their status as two-time defending state champions, the Warriors have been humbled multiple times this year. They've lost twice, once by one point and another time by 14, to Cornerstone Prep Academy, a team that hadn't been a problem in the past. And on Jan. 25 against Shiloh Hills Christian, the current first-place team in Horizon's region, the Warriors were flummoxed by the Challengers' full-court press, a tactic rarely seen in the GICAA, and lost 64-24.

"We didn't expect them to start trapping and pressing us like that," Bierster said. "So we kind of went to scramble mode in the second half."

With those losses, Horizon will take on another somewhat new role for its region tournament, which starts on Tuesday: An underdog. And given the result at Pinecrest, that might not be such a bad thing for the Warriors. 

"We have always played well as that underdog," Taylor said. "...Starting this season, the target was on us. Now it's not on us anymore."