The Panthers are tasked with replacing all five starters for the second time in three seasons.
Another season, another opportunity for the Whitman-Hanson Regional High boys’ basketball team.
It’s a chance for it to make its own mark in the history of a program that, over each of the past six seasons, has won at least 16 games and has qualified for the last 10 Div. 2 South Sectional tournaments, while making a pair of trips to the TD Garden for the state semifinals.
After the graduation of all five starters from last season’s 16-5 team, the starting lineup – similar to 2016 – is blank after the first week of practice, just waiting for five players to emerge.
“We graduated everybody off of that -2016 team,” said 19-year head coach Bob Rodgers. “The only kids that had any kind of experience at all were [Luke] Tamulevich and Nikko Raftes, and both of those guys, their minutes were in a very complementary role.”
That team went on to win the league title and compete in the state semifinals at the TD Garden.
“It’s just a matter of getting the guys on the same page and trying to figure out what we have in terms of assets,” Rodgers said.
Also similarly to the 2016-17 team, Rodgers said he expects the Panthers to return to being a good shooting team from inside and outside the arc. Last season’s team struggled with its ability to knock down shots.
“I think you always have to go with whatever your personnel strength is,” Rodgers said. “Last year, going inside was something that was an advantage for us. This year we do have a lot more shooters, more guys that can hit the outside shot, so it’s something where we’ll look a lot more like the teams of 2016 [and] ’17 than 2018.”
Sean Leahy, now playing at UMass Dartmouth, willed the Panthers to many victories last season, averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds a contest en route to Patriot League Keenan Division MVP honors. Fellow senior captain and Patriot League All-Star Jacob Hanson-Bartlett pumped in 12.3 points a game. Both of their production will be missed. Rodgers said it’s really hard for him to pinpoint who will shoulder the load on offense this season.
“One of the beauties of this roster is we have a lot of guys that can score,” Rodgers said. “Colby Ahern can shoot it. Ben Rice can. Stevie Kelly. John Zeidan.”
Of the Panthers’ returnees, senior guard Tajh Hunter has the most experience under his belt, having accumulated 381 minutes on the floor last winter. Senior guard Cole Lewis and junior guard Max Borgen are the only other two returnees with over 200 minutes of varsity playing experience. Senior guard Joey DePina, who received just 90 varsity minutes last season, will captain the team.
Rodgers said that while he isn’t returning a ton of experience at the varsity level, he can’t complain about the work put in by most of his players over the offseason.
“They’re in the gym all the time,” Rodgers said. “From the time the season ended last year to where we are right now, you see the improvement. So many of these guys are just head and shoulders of where they were when the season ended.”
Rodgers said he believes his team’s strength is its togetherness, and his players will deal with adversity as a unit.
“They’re such good kids that they get along really well and support each other,” Rodgers said. “I think they’re ready to grow together and help each other grow and deal with the pressures that are different on varsity than JV.”
Rodgers said he’s focused on getting everyone working toward the same mission, while improving along the way.
“We have a really young team,” he said. “Really the goal right now is just to try to get everybody on the same page, so that they’re playing the style that we believe in which is playing together, unselfish, build new character and let the record take care of itself.”
The Panthers open the season Tuesday, Dec. 11 at home against league foe Quincy at 6:30 p.m.
“I’ve never made predictions of where we’ll finish,” Rodgers said. “All I can say is we’ll play the game the right way. No matter what the record is, we’ll practice hard every day and we’ll get better every day.”