Two years ago, Shane Gatling was a sophomore trying to prove he belonged on Baldwin’s starting five.

He was a first-year member of coach Darius Burton’s varsity program after transferring from St. Mary’s, and he began the season as the Bruins’ sixth man. But after a few games, the offensively potent Gatling showed he was too valuable not to be a starter. He earned his coach’s trust through his production and insatiable appetite for improvement.

“It was proven that this kid belonged in the starting lineup,” Burton said, “and he just kept climbing the ladder from there.”

Fast forward to now, and Gatling is a 6-2 senior guard and the only third-year varsity player on a team aiming for its second consecutive Nassau Class AA title. He is the only returning starter from the team that lost to Brentwood in the 2015 Long Island championship.

“A lot is expected of him,” Burton said.

Burton elaborated, saying he needs Gatling’s production (14 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in 2014-15) to remain consistent, if not spike. But more than that, Baldwin’s 16th-year coach said he will rely on Gatling for leadership. Gatling is a captain for the second straight year.

“People look up to him, the younger guys, especially,” senior center Justin Caldwell said.

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Burton credited Gatling’s work ethic, saying he is constantly at the front of the line for drills during practice. Gatling said he has heard people question his defense, so he spent a significant portion of his summer guarding the quickest opponent during pick-up games at the park. Instead of running from the challenge, he embraced it.

“I took that as an insult and tried to work better at it,” said Gatling, who has Division II offers from Pace, LIU Post and Adelphi.

Gatling said he has seen firsthand the benefits of a diligent work ethic. As a sophomore he played more than Daraja Rodwell, a junior who averaged 2.7 points to Gatling’s 12.7. But Gatling watched Rodwell devote his offseason to honing his craft and, as a senior, become Baldwin’s leading scorer at 17.2 points per game and a Newsday All-Long Island selection.

“Keep working hard and you get what you want,” Gatling said.

That’s a message Gatling has tried to share with teammates. According to Caldwell, Baldwin has adopted the mantra, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Baldwin’s talent has worked hard, with the goal to win the county for the fifth time in 10 years. As Caldwell and forward Jared Rhoden, the team’s other captains, and second-year players Jabeon Bivins, Zion Stephens and Taj Thorpe step into expanded roles, they admit that opponents have placed a bull’s-eye on the Bruins’ backs.

They can always look to the battle-tested Gatling when the going gets tough.

“He’s just a great mentor,” said Rhoden, whose 24 points per game led the Bruins to a 2-0 start. “He teaches me new things every day.”

Said Burton: “We are happy we have him.”