Gators take on Spartans at the Gold Dome _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- East Ascension's Koye Ruffin shoots a jump shot during a game last season against St. Amant.

Barry Whittington’s first year at the helm of the East Ascension basketball program was nothing special.

This time last year, the Spartans were 4-9 with only two wins against Class 5A teams. The rest of the year was much of the same for a young East Ascension team, finishing 13-17 in the regular season before putting together a run to the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

What a difference a year makes.

The Spartans head into winter break with a 15-2 record, their only losses coming to defending 3A state champion and University High and in overtime to one of the top Class 5A teams, West Jefferson.

It’s the best start to a season for East Ascension since the 2012-13 season, when the Spartans started 16-1 before making a run to the semifinals of the playoffs.

Next up for East Ascension is the Holy Cross Tony Rodi Basketball Classic this weekend where it will face L.W. Higgins in the first round.

“I think a lot of people knew we would be better this year, but I don’t think people knew how good we could be,” Whittington said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m not surprised, but I know how much the kids worked during the offseason to get better, and right now we’re seeing the fruits of that.”

One of the keys to the Spartans’ success is its guard duo of Le’Aaron Cain and Koye Ruffin.

Cain leads East Ascension with close to 20 points per game while Ruffin is second with about 16 points per game.

A transfer from Dutchtown who sat out last season, Cain has been a an offensive leader for the Spartans since Day 1, scoring more than 40 points in the season opener against East St. John.

While Cain has been an offensive force, the junior prides himself on his defense.

“A lot of things have developed since last year,” Cain said. “We weren’t really playing as a team.

“During the summer, we focused a lot more on defense, so we focused on locking out on defense and being more aggressive.”

But Whittington isn’t settling for what East Ascension has done so far. He wants to see the Spartans continue to grow and reach the next level.

To do that, they’re going to have to compete with the U-Highs and the West Jeffersons of the state.

“That next level is going to have to be not only competing with those teams, but to actual beat those teams that are your traditional powerhouses. When we can get to that level and sustain it over a season, that will put us in the conversation for being able to compete for a state championship.

“I would love to be in position to compete for one, but this process is very fluid, and we still have a long way to go to get there.”