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Erik Poulsen wasn’t feeling it. An All-Empire first team pick his senior year at Montgomery, Poulsen was undeniably talented. And standing 6-foot-11 with a shooter’s soft touch, he was undeniably gifted.

But in the fall of 2015, he was also undeniably uncertain about basketball.

So, before his freshman season at Santa Rosa Junior College, he walked away.

“I just sat back and said to myself, ‘If this is something that I want to do, for my future, you know, I think it would be good for me to just take some time off,’” he said. “I felt like I was a good player, I just needed to be a little more focused. I kind of needed to do some soul searching.”

So he took time. He didn’t work out much, he went to class, he spent time away from court.

But he eventually found his way back.

That time away led Poulsen to reignite his love for the game he has played since he was a grade schooler.

“It gave me a different perspective on the game and it gave me a different level of focus on the game that I didn’t have before, which was kind of holding me back before,” he said.

First he ventured back to Haehl Pavillion to watch the Bear Cubs play. Then he called coach Craig McMillan, told him he was ready to play.

“I basically told him I was planning on being a big contributor,” Poulsen said. “He said, ‘You know, it’s going to take a lot of work.’ And I said, ‘That’s cool with me.’ From that point on, I just put my head down and started doing to work, putting on weight and going to the gym four or five days a week.”

McMillan said it was clear to him Poulsen was committed to returning, committed to getting in better shape, committed to growing his game as a Bear Cub.

“He missed it and he was motivated,” McMillan said. “I think he’s a sharp guy. He knew what he had to do. I have no problem giving him another chance.”

Poulsen hit the gym. He added muscle to his frame. He worked on his fitness — something that had been lacking when his motivation flagged.

“When you step away from something, that is when you can truly find a new passion for it,” Poulsen said.

Want some numbers to back up the sentiment?

Poulsen averaged 17.8 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game in January, leading the Bear Cubs on a 7-2 run in the Big 8 conference that secured their spot at the top of the standings. He racked up six double-doubles during those games, including 15 blocks.

“Erik has been a force for us all year,” McMillan said.

And the Bear Cubs have been a force in the Big 8.

The team, made up primarily of local talent, faltered for the first time in four games Tuesday night, falling on the road to second place Sacramento City 69-62 in overtime. Still, with one conference game remaining, the Bear Cubs can still clinch the title outright with a win over Sierra on Thursday.

In Tuesday’s losing effort, Poulson had 14 points and 11 rebounds.

“We are a work in progress,” McMillan said. “There are a lot of smaller, quicker, good shooting JC teams this year,” he said. “That is the way the game is evolving and we have a more traditional team with some bigger guys.”

None bigger than Poulsen.

But it would be incorrect to say that Poulsen is a 100 percent traditional post player.

After all, this is a guy who leads the Big 8 in blocks but also ranks third in field goal percentage as well as 3-point percentage at nearly 42 percent from behind the arc. He is second in the conference in rebounds (almost 10).

“What he does really well for a guy his size is shoot 3s, mid-range shots — everything,” McMillan said. “His previous coaches did a good job working on his shooting.”

But that inside game, that was something McMillan said Poulsen needed to fine tune from the outset. It was his homework assignment when Poulsen decided to recommit to the game and planned his return to the Bear Cubs.

“He needed a little more work finishing inside,” he said. “Getting stronger inside and establishing position.”

“He’s always been a good runner for a guy his size, but where he’s improved is his lateral movement, staying lower and getting in better shape.”

It’s paying dividends on defense, Poulsen said. “It’s a fairly big asset for me to be able to stay in front of people who are six or seven inches shorter than me,” he said. “It’s tough, but I feel it’s something I’m capable of doing if I keep working on it in practice.”

To that end, Poulsen is leading the team in blocks at 1.3 per game.

“That lateral movement, it’s not something that 7-footers put at the top of their list but it’s something I’ve had to work on to stay on the floor for long stretches,” he said.

At this stage in his career, Poulsen is studying how to expand his game, not simply take advantage of the natural tools he’s got. He’s got serious interest from a long list of schools. Now, he must decide whether he stays another year at the JC or takes his game to a four-year school.

Poulsen expects to make up his mind by April.

It’s all a long way from where he was a little more than a year ago. He knows this and is appreciative for what his journey, albeit a somewhat unique one, has shown him about his game and about himself.

“If you are going to do something, if it’s going to be a big part of your life, you have to truly love what you are doing,” he said. “I figured if it was something I truly loved, I would find my way back to the game.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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