LAUREL — David Swecker's transformation from long-range catalyst to versatile playmaker hasn't come without sacrifice.
Sure, Swecker can still knock down a 25-foot shot if he needs to. But the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Laurel senior has worked tirelessly to become a thorn in the side of opponents from elsewhere on the court, too.
“Last year, all I did was shoot,” Swecker says. “But coming into this year I knew I was going to be the biggest kid on the team. I wanted to work on my post moves so I could go down low when we needed to get baskets late in games, and when we needed somebody to go to the free throw line.
“I wanted to be that guy.”
Swecker has shot 113 fewer 3-pointers this season than last year for the defending Class A state champions. That fact isn't lost on Swecker, who loves to step back and stroke the ball from distance.
But that adjustment — made necessary after the graduation of post player Sean Condon — has produced a more well-rounded game, one that has turned Swecker into the team's leading scorer and No. 1 offensive option.
“I haven't been shooting near as well as I was last year,” said Swecker, who is averaging 11.8 points entering Saturday's regular-season finale against Lewistown. “I've been struggling more, maybe because people are keying on me more. But I'm doing better in the post, which is nice.”
A prime example of that came during Laurel's 63-35 victory over Eastern A rival Sidney in mid-January.
Swecker struggled from 3-point range that afternoon, so he tweaked his approach. Swecker asserted himself in the paint and finished with 18 points on 8-of-16 shooting from inside the arc.
“The one thing I like about David is the way he's changed his game,” sixth-year Laurel coach Pat Hansen said. “He's more balanced offensively. Everybody knows he can shoot the ball from the perimeter, but he's really worked hard to become a nice presence around the basket.”
“He's taken that role and used it,” Laurel guard Jake McKinney said. “He's added it as another weapon in his arsenal.”
Hansen pointed to Swecker's improved post play, along with that of Luke Lohof and Zach Cortese off the bench, as a major factor in making Laurel multifaceted. The perimeter presence of McKinney, Derek Budge and Bobby Anderson has paid dividends, as well.
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Last year, while helping the Locomotives to their first state championship since 1972, Swecker solidified his reputation as a 3-point specialist. He was willing to pull up — and make — shots from spots on the floor most players dare not dream of.
Versus Browning in the state semifinals, Swecker made 8 of 15 shots from the floor, including four 3-pointers. He was a key early, scoring eight straight points to trigger a 17-2 run that gave Laurel a nine-point first-quarter advantage.
The next night in the title game against Polson, Swecker's deep 3 with 7:33 to play opened up a seven-point lead, to which the Locomotives were able to hang on until the final horn.
Hansen joked after a game last season that Swecker's range knew no limit; that he could hit a 3 the moment he walked in the gym. Swecker made 77 of 207 treys last season. He's hit 24 of 94 so far this year.
“He's a very educated kid. He knows what a good shot is,” Hansen said. “You want every kid to want the ball in their hands, and he's got the green light any time he touches the ball.”
The Locomotives, who are 14-3 overall and 10-0 in the Eastern A, have beaten teams by an average of more than 16 points this year. Aside from the 28-point triumph over Sidney, they had a 49-point victory over Miles City, along with 41- and 33-point wins over Glendive.
Swecker, a three-sport star who is set to play baseball at MSU Billings, believes those victories proved to teams in the Eastern A that they must go through Laurel before they go anywhere else.
Swecker is as unassuming as they come. But he still asserts that “it feels great to blow out a conference rival. I think it puts some fear into teams.”
The Locomotives will travel to Glendive next weekend for the divisional tournament. Swecker hopes Laurel can win the Eastern A tourney title and unseat three-time reigning champion Billings Central.
As for defending their state crown? Swecker and his teammates have a philosophy on that, too.
“At the beginning of the year it was on our minds a lot,” Swecker said. “Now we're not really defending it as much as we're just out there playing our game the way we know how.”