The North Carroll Panthers believe they paid their dues with last year's injury-marred season. This year, they would like nothing better than to make up for it with its strong returning nucleus.
The Panthers never got out of the gate in Troy Warehime's first year as head coach last season, finishing with a 4-18 mark.
They lost two of three seniors to injuries for much of the season. It gave some younger players a chance to play and enabled Warehime to experiment with some different sets. He hopes the experience will pay dividends this season.
"We took some lumps last year but hope to benefit from it this year," he said.
"We were 4-18, but the kids never lost focus. They realized the situation and fought through last year feeling this year would be their reward. They're really champing at the bit to get started."
A solid group returns led by last year's leading scorer Steve Long, point guard Mike Hensley and forward Kris Heefner. Warehime also is expecting some new faces to step up.
Long averaged around 15 points a game last year at small forward.
"He's one of the best players in the county. Physically, he's our best all-around athlete who has a lot of speed and is a great jumper," Warehime said.
A big key will be the inside play of Heefner, who at 6-4 showed he could rebound last season. Warehime also would like to see Heefner put the ball in the basket a lot more this year.
"We didn't have a lot of inside scoring last year and I'd like to see him get up to around 10 points a game," Warehime said.
"He rebounded very well last year and brings a lot of athleticism up front."
Warehime eventually would like to work fellow 6-4 forward Chris Hohenstein, a junior newcomer, into the starting lineup to complement Heefner and Long. Warehime said it would give the Panthers a luxury of height they haven't had for some time.
Also expected to see time up front is returning junior Chris Turnbaugh and senior newcomer Lee Knight.
The Panthers have four guards returning with varsity experience, led by senior point guard Mike Hensley.
"He's a very intense player who's always hustling and is our leader on the floor," Warehime said.
"He's our best defensive player who dives on the floor after balls and gets right on someone when guarding them."
Senior Chris Wunder is a three-point threat at the off-guard spot with senior Scott McLain and junior Jeff Baldwin also contributing in the Panthers' backcourt.
Expect to see a lot of different looks from the Panthers this season at both ends of the court.
"It really depends on the team we're playing but we'll play a lot of man and also go zone with some presses at times," Warehime said.
"We're going to run a motion [offense] and try to keep people moving to cause some visual and communication problems. We won't use too much of an uptempo game, but there will be some teams we can run against."