The Panthers return most of their production from last season’s 18-7 club.
For Whitman-Hanson Regional High boys’ basketball head coach Bob Rodgers, it’s like night and day going into this season compared to last winter.
Last year, the Panthers were tasked with finding a new starting five. This season, they return all of their key pieces from a Div. 2 South semifinals run.
“As a coach, it’s really about staying out of their way and letting them be as good as they are,” said Rodgers, who enters his 20th year at the helm of the boys’ basketball program.
Rodgers said with more experience comes heightened expectations.
“Now we’re veterans, most of the league knows most of the guys on the team — they know who they are and what they can do,” said Rodgers, whose team has qualified for the tournament for 11 straight seasons. “It’s a lot of fun because we’re way further ahead than we ordinarily would be this time of year so a lot of the stuff we’re doing is mostly reviewing. It’s great when you have a veteran team.”
Rodgers said while his starting five is likely going to fluctuate throughout the season, there are a few players almost set in stone, beginning with senior captain Stevie Kelly. The team’s returning MVP, he will once again man the point after averaging about 8.3 ppg and over 130 assists last season.
“Stevie Kelly is tough as nails and is one of the best competitors I’ve ever coached, he just competes hard all the time,” Rodgers said. “His basketball skill level has improved immensely. He shoots it really well and he’s a great passer.”
A 6-foot-7 swingman, senior captain Ben Rice will start after averaging close to 12 ppg and sinking close to 50 three-pointers last season.
“Ben is a great kid to coach, who has such a great demeanor,” Rodgers said. “Everyone on the team loves him. He can shoot it, he’s getting better diving the ball to the whole, he can rebound it and I think defensively he can make a difference with how long he is. He’s a weapon.”
Junior Cole LeVangie is also a weapon with an efficient inside and outside game for the Panthers.
“All Cole LeVangie has done it gotten better,” Rodgers said. “He’s going to be in the mix to start.”
While Rodgers said he expects his club to shoot the ball well from beyond the arc again this season, his team’s strength isn’t something that’s going to be found on the stat sheet.
“They all (the players) genuinely care about each other, they genuinely want their teammates to have success,” said the coach. “They can push each other in practice without other guys getting offended and they can play hard-nosed in practice without somebody feeling like they’re trying to show them up. That intangible of a team’s character, as I look at all the teams I’ve coached over my 30 years of coaching, I always look back and say, ‘Where were we on the character scale?’
“The teams that were high on the character scale always achieved higher than I thought they could. They’ve exceed what they can be. If this team achieve what they can be, sky’s the limit because just what they can be is really good.”
The Panthers return to the court Friday, Dec. 20 at 6:30 p.m. on the home against Plymouth North.
“Nothing is ever guaranteed in high school basketball,” Rodgers said. “It’s not played on paper, it’s played on the court. On paper, I like what we are, but we got to go play it on the court.”