For the Manhattan High boys’ basketball team this season, finding replacements for the bulk of the scoring and most of the size will be a tall task.
Head coach Tim Brooks leaned on his seniors last year, and will likely do so again this season with a new group of guys. Two starters return for the Indians in point guard Jonathon Taylor and sophomore big-man Payton Stephens, though Stephens is currently not cleared to play in games.
“Payton Stephens started last year inside,” Brooks said. “He won’t play, probably until after Christmas because of a knee injury, but when he’s back, we look for some strong play inside from him.”
In Taylor, Brooks has a floor general who has accepted the need for leadership on the court and has stepped his game up in the offseason.
“He had a good summer,” Brooks said of Taylor. “So we look for good things out of him on both ends of the floor and he’s really stepped up to be a leader.”
Past that, most of the Indians that will see time in Friday’s season opener at Derby were playing JV most of last year.
“We lost most of our size, so size may be an issue,” Brooks said. “But the guys that played JV last year had such a good year and such success, that it should carry over. I think they’ve got a competitive spirit and good team chemistry, which also helps.”
With Stephens out, senior Garrett Henry is the tallest player at 6-foot-4. Brooks said all of his seniors this year have been working hard so far.
“The seniors, Blake Saville, Jacob Holloway, Chris Hudgins and Key’ Arri Shorter and Garrett Henry, all have put in a lot of time and they’ve been playing together for a number of years,” he said. “So it’s their time, I think. They realize it, and they’ve been playing with a sense of urgency in practice, which is good to see as a coach.”
Brooks has filled out his varsity roster with several key players for the MHS football team this fall, including Holloway, Hudgins, Bret Fehr, Darian Taylor and Winston Dimel.
“Those guys bring a lot of toughness and a good competitive spirit, which you see out on the gridiron, so we welcome them,” Brooks said. “It’s a good thing to have a mix and it’s a good thing that guys play more than one sport.”
Brooks said his offensive game plan will evolve as the season progresses, but lack of size will always factor in.
“We’d like to, with our quickness and our ability to get in the lane, kind of spread the floor a little bit,” he said. “Utilize our posts some, but also move them away from the basket because of their size. If they’re able to shoot the ball efficiently or shot-fake and get to the glass, that will only help our offense.”
Defensively, Brooks will try and mix it up as much as possible to keep opponents on their toes.
“Our speed will help the transition,” he said. “All the guys are able to run the floor. Transition offense and transition defense, and I think we’ll be able to do more things defensively. Our biggest drawback is we’re not very tall. There are all sorts of ways to combat that, and we’re exploring those. But with only two and a half weeks of practice, it’s hard to perfect a whole lot, especially with execution on offense and finding an identity defensively.”
The early-season schedule won’t make things any easier for Brooks and his new team. They open at No. 7 Derby on Friday, before hosting Word of Life the following Tuesday and Dodge City and Great Bend on the following Friday and Saturday.
“The rankings came out, Derby’s ranked No. 7,” Brooks said. “Word of Life is a lot like Sunrise Christian, they can go out and get kids from out of the country. So we really don’t know what to expect there, and we are their first game, so we have to go off of some things they did last year, which is tough. Then we go Friday-Saturday, and we’re at home, but it’s tough. We play four games in eight days. It’s a lot to ask for, especially this early.”
Playing in the always-tough Centennial League won’t be any easier this year. Brooks said he expects Emporia and Highland Park to be the favorites to win the league this season.
“It seems like every time you tab somebody up there, then three or four other teams are just right there, and hopefully we can be in that mix,” he said. “The league is, again, very good.”