Milo De Los Santos takes a shot against Princeton High on Dec. 14, 2018. HoVal won, 55-47. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

When Milo De Los Santos returned to the Hopewell Valley Central High School boys basketball team as the only guy with substantial varsity minutes, it stood to reason he had to provide leadership.

As it turns out, the senior has provided so much more.

Through the Bulldogs 9-3 start, De Los Santos ranked as one of the Colonial Valley Conference leaders in scoring with a 19.9 average and in 3-pointers with 34. He is scoring at a clip of more than 10 points per game from last year.

He has also shown the way for a group of sophomores and juniors after HoVal lost eight players to graduation.

“He’s having an incredible year,” coach Matt Stein said. “With so many guys graduating, our season could have gone either way. But he developed in that leadership role, he’s trusting his teammates and he’s averaging 20 points. I talked to him numerous times about his leadership. Some guys can get worried about who’s coming in because they lost the core guys from last year, but he’s done a great job in believing in these guys.”

De Los Santos is not the most vocal of leaders. He’s soft spoken and seems like a guy content to be in the background. But he knew what had to be done.

“Every great team has a leader,” he said. “So I wanted to, and I had to, step into that role. I wanted to lead by example. We all learn from our mistakes, so I guess my main thing is, I’ll point out what you could do better or what you did wrong, how you could improve it. So next time they know not to do a certain move or whatever. I like to tell them what they can do better instead of just, like, yelling at them.”

The result is that Hopewell has hardly slipped after last year’s record-setting 21-6 campaign. Through the season’s first month, the Bulldogs won the Molinelli holiday tournament and defeated perennial CVC power Ewing as senior Pat Johnson and underclassmen John Broz, Jake Loughery, Kevin O’Reilly and Gabe Rodriguez have stepped up to the challenge.

“All these guys jelled really well together,” De Los Santos said. “I feel like they were looking forward to it and ready to play varsity basketball; especially the sophomores. Everyone is really unselfish. We move the ball really well, especially in the halfcourt.”

Leading the way has been De Los Santos, who is interchangeable with Broz at the wing or point guard. Milo began his career at age 6 playing in Greg Grant’s recreation league in Ewing. He quickly switched to Hopewell recreation and in fourth grade started with Hopewell travel.

Eighth grade led De Los Santos to AAU ball with the NJ Connection. He is now with the YSU Elite, which splintered away from the Connection.

He also played baseball and soccer, but quit baseball in fifth grade and dropped soccer after his freshman year to focus on basketball. While that disappointed ’Dogs soccer coach Ed Gola, De Los Santos laughingly confirmed that Gola does not try to cheat him out of points while keeping the basketball scorebook.

After playing on the freshman and JV team in 9th grade, De Los Santos sat the varsity bench toward the end of the year and felt that actually helped.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “My first game that I sat for varsity was the first round of (the Mercer County Tournament) at Trenton so it was a crazy environment. It got me prepared for what I would see the next year.”

When point guard Alex Mummert suffered a season-ending injury the following year, De Los Santos took over as a sophomore.

“He was thrown right into it with those guys,” said Stein, who was in his first year at the helm.

“That was a little bit new to me,” De Los Santos admitted. “I didn’t take too many shots. It was mainly just moving the ball around getting my teammates involved.”

He still chipped in with 6.4 points per game, and raised that average to 9.6 last season after Mummert returned.

“Last year I was more of a role player, playing off of Alex (Mummert) and Robbie (Wiley),” De Los Santo said. “I just did what needed to be done.”

“He could have been one of our main scorer, but he figured out his role and what he needed to do, and learned from Mummert,” Stein said. “He was getting other guys open. When we weren’t scoring he picked up the slack. Whenever we saw something where Wiley or Mummert wasn’t scoring, he took over that role.”

De Los Santos has always been a big-time slasher, finding ways to get to the basket and score inside. Stein feels he has added the 3-point shot to his repertoire, making him even tougher to defend. He has also become a better defender.

“He’s one of our top defensive guys,” Stein said. “We work on getting deflections and steals, getting loose balls. That’s a big area. He’s got long arms where he can get those deflections. His defensive game is picking up as well.”

In his own self-assessment, De Los Santos feels he has gone from a catch-and-shoot scorer to a guy who can create more himself by coming off screens and moving off the ball. He has found it “a little weird” playing without big brother Max for the first time. Max graduated last year and is now attending Coastal Carolina and focusing on his studies. Milo hopes to play Division III basketball and his top choice is currently Lasell College in Massachusetts.

His major is undecided, though he is considering something in marketing or sports management.

For now, however, he is busy being a leader. . .and a scorer.