Laurel boys basketball coach Torrence Oxendine had his share of worries coming into the season, but team chemistry among his starters wasn't one of them.
The Spartans returned four starters — senior point guard Antone Matthews (5 feet 7) and senior forwards Keshon Kearney (6-2), Tyler Sterling (6-2) and Josh Brown (6-2) — from a team that went 13-10 last year and lost in the third round of the Class 4A playoffs to Bladensburg.
"They have been playing together for so long," said Oxendine, who is coaching from a wheelchair because of a severe knee injury. "We are poised to make a (post-season) run because of that chemistry they already have.
"We really want to get back to the regional semifinals," he added. "I think we can have a pretty successful campaign."
One of Oxendine's biggest challenges was replacing standout point guard Kirk Hawkins.
He averaged 19 points and six assists per game last year and now plays at Division III Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y.
"Kirk brought a lot to the table," Oxendine said. "Anytime you lose a 1,000-point scorer that is a tough loss. But I think that the leadership he provided to the younger guys actually enabled them to be in a good place for this year."
One of the "Younger guys" Oxendine is referring to is Matthews. He'll play point guard after playing as a combo guard last year.
Matthews, who will be sharing the backcourt with junior JV promotion Mekhi Small (5-10), is getting high marks for the leadership he's shown.
"He's a pretty good point guard, and he has to be like a coach on the floor," said Oxendine, who is in his sixth year. "And he's done a pretty good job with it so far. He's working on getting the other guys more involved and increasing their scoring so they keep defenses off kilter."
If Oxendine had his way, he would have a couple of 6-foot-5 or 6-foot insider players, but he's fine with his group of small forwards: Kearney, Sterling and Brown.
"We try rebound by committee," Oxendine said. "We feel if we play fundamental basketball, can rebound and put enough pressure on the ball handlers, then we can be competitive."
Oxendine has been particularly impressed with Kearney and Sterling.
"They have improved their jump shot and they are going to the basket more," the coach said. "I expect a lot out of them as far as scoring and rebounding."
Junior Nick Nowlin (6-4), a transfer from Northwestern, junior point guard senior center/forward Oba Anjorin (6-4), senior forward Anthony Williams (6-2) and senior combo guard Delahney Williams (6-3) also will play key roles for Laurel as the top reserves.
"They can really get out and run in transition," Oxendine said. "If we can turn our defense into offense, that will create easy buckets for us."
The season didn't start the way Oxendine had hoped as the Spartans lost their first three games to Largo, Old Mill, High Point and Bladensburg.
The latest setback came on Dec. 16 to Bladensburg.
Laurel trailed by 14 points late in the third quarter, but managed to tie the game in the middle of the fourth quarter before Bladensburg pulled away.
"It's still a long season to go," Laurel assistant coach Kenny Lloyd said. "I don't want to harp on 0-4. It's not like our four losses were blowouts. If somebody wants to sleep on Laurel, I wish you the best of luck."