Braves hoping for return to top of KVL standings
During the course of the past two seasons, Bonner Springs boys basketball coach Andy Price has experienced both ends of the expectations spectrum.
Two years ago Price entered the season with one of the best teams Bonner Springs has ever had. That team lived up to expectations, finishing 18-4 and missing a trip to state by just one game.
Last year, with nearly all of that team gone, Price knew he was in for the ups and downs of rebuilding. The Braves struggled early, got hot midway through the season and ultimately fizzled out in the first round of sub-state. In a lot of ways, last season's team also equaled its expectations.
Those two vastly different seasons bring the Braves to this year, where there's enough proven players to expect big things but also enough questions marks to make predicting the future a difficult task.
"A lot of these guys were around two years ago when we went 18-4 and won league," Price said. "It was just fun to be around that, and I think this year's team is definitely hungry. It's interesting, though. Last year, there was no pressure. This year we expect to be better, and hopefully we'll be up for the challenge."
The early signs indicate that this year's squad is leaning more toward impersonating the 2002 league champions than finishing at .500 like last year's squad.
For starters, the team is practicing harder and has the experience of playing varsity basketball. Price said those two factors are a must for a team that has the goals that this year's team has.
"The whole experience factor is huge," Price said. "Ask any coach or any player, once you've been through it, it's a lot easier the second time around."
And the Braves have been through it. Last year, Price started two sophomores and two juniors, all of whom had never started a varsity contest. All four players return this season, making Price's starting lineup one of the most experienced in the league.
Senior Toine Barber will start at point guard. At 5-foot-5, Barber has constantly been overlooked because of his size. However, last year Barber received proof that he had been noticed by the league's coaches. His on-court leadership and tremendous defense earned him all-league honors, and he's poised to repeat that feat this season.
"Toine's our only returning all-league player, and he's still outworking everyone," Price said. "He's definitely going to fill our leadership role."
Joining Barber in the backcourt is junior Jeff Hills. Known primarily for his sharp-shooting skills from behind the arc, Hills actually prides himself on his aggressiveness and suffocating defense. The bomber was slightly frustrated with his shooting performance a season ago, and Price expects a better all-around showing from this constantly improving player.
"I think you'll see Jeff's percentage go up this year, because he'll be more selective with his shots," Price said. "He's got a great basketball IQ, and he's a very unselfish player."
In the front court, the Bonner Springs football backfield will hold down the fort. Senior Christian McDonald and junior Nick White will control the lane for the Braves, as both are tremendous rebounders and intimidating defenders. White averaged more than three blocks per game last season and has matured a lot in the off-season. McDonald has the body to be an enforcer inside but also has the ability and shooting touch to step outside and knock down the outside shot. Both players will be relied on heavily to rule the paint, but Price's favorite part about them -- and his entire team -- is that they're versatile enough to play inside and out.
"Nick and Christian are both incredibly strong," Price said. "My only fear is that they have to avoid foul trouble. This team is kind of like the team two years ago in that everyone on the floor is a threat to score. It's a whole lot easier for opponents to stop one player than it is for them to stop a whole team. The only thing we don't have is a 6-foot-10 kid, but speed, athletic ability and teamwork can make up for a lack of height."
With four of the five starting spots set, the fifth is a bit of a mystery. Junior Emmanuel McComb has the early edge, because he's a hard-nosed player who sets good screens, rebounds and can score inside. Senior Will Davis, another player who started a handful of games for the Braves last season, also has a shot at the spot, however, he won't be with the team until the second semester.
Beyond that, the Braves have very little depth. The bench will have talent, as Price said this year's 50 players at tryouts had more quality players than any entire group he'd ever seen, but that talent will be unproven.
Josh Palcher, Anthony Brown, Eddie McClain and Chris Callahan will all vie for minutes off the bench, and Price is confident that as the season goes on those role players will become more reliable.
The Braves are not shy about their goals. They want to challenge for a league title, and they want to get over the hump and make the trip to state. However, in addition, Price is looking at things program-wide. He thinks all three Bonner Springs teams -- freshman, JV and varsity -- should expect to finish above .500, and he's hoping the experience they have under their belts will make the difference.
The Braves kick off the regular season Friday, Dec. 3 at home against Gardner-Edgerton. Last year, the Braves lost to Gardner in the season opener after failing to close out a game in which they led by 10 points with two minutes to play. This year, Price is betting his team will be much more confident late in games, and he's hoping that will lead to another memorable season.
"The difference between winning 12 games and winning 18 games is how well we finish games," Price said. "Free throws and executing down the stretch. Hopefully our experience will make a big difference for us this year. If it does, we have a shot to accomplish all of our goals."