By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — LAPEL — Like many boys basketball teams in the coverage area, Lapel is undergoing something of a makeover this season.
None of the others, however, have a head coach with more than 500 career victories.
The losses of Tanner Watkins and Drew Norton following a 12-10 season will present challenges for the Bulldogs. But Jimmie Howell — who has 507 wins in 33 years overall and 145 wins including a Class 2A state championship in 10 years at Lapel — has seen it all before.
"There's a lot of playing time up for grabs with a lot of schools (in the county)," Howell said. "You try to get your program up to a point where you really don't have many years where you have seven or eight seniors on your team. Each year, you've got a little bit (of experience) coming back."
To that end, Howell returns three starters this season in seniors Mitchell Richardson and Bailey Partington and junior Brady Cherry. Senior Josh Erwin would have been the fourth, but he underwent surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament Thursday morning and will miss the season.
Richardson emerged last season as a sharp-shooter and brought his game to another level over the summer.
"He's able to put the ball on the floor and go to the basket a lot more than he did last year," Howell said.
Cherry is an outstanding all-around athlete who will be asked to fill many roles this season. Watkins was the team's primary ballhandler, and Norton was the primary scorer in the post.
Cherry, who carries 205 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, will be part of the solution at both positions.
"He's going to play a little bit of everywhere for us," Howell said of the baseball star who also served as the football team's quarterback this fall. "He's very versatile and can play about every position on the floor."
Partington will take over some of the ballhandling responsibilities as well as filling various other roles. But one concern is bulk.
Senior Dalton Busch and freshman Jonross Richardson each stand 6-5. But neither weighs 200 pounds, and only Cherry carries enough weight to consistently bang with opponents in the paint.
What the Bulldogs lack in mass, however, they make up for in length. Howell is counting on all those long arms to help make life difficult for opposing offenses.
On the other end of the floor, Lapel will especially feel the absence of Watkins and Norton.
"Those two averaged 30-something (combined) points a game for us," Howell said. "We're going to need everybody to step up a little bit from their scoring last year."
The head coach expects to have a balanced team, without any single player being asked to carry too great a burden.
Among the players stepping into expanded roles or making the leap to the varsity roster are senior Bobby Steele, junior Noah Hendershot, junior Joe Hart, sophomore Kamron Herrington and sophomore Triston Carpenter.
The regular season begins Tuesday at home against Anderson, and the schedule remains among the most challenging in the state. Lapel is slated to play up to five Class 2A ranked opponents in addition to the 4A Indians and 3A Hamilton Heights.
"I try to play one of the top 10 to 15 2A schedules in the state every year," Howell said. "By doing so, we hope it gets us ready for the postseason."
Frankton and Wapahani again will enter the season as the favorites in Class 2A Sectional 40, and the Bulldogs will test themselves against both teams during the regular season.
The goal, as always, is to be playing at the highest level when the games get serious in the final months of the season. Young players such as Jonross Richardson and Herrington are likely to grow throughout the year, and Lapel could grow right alongside them.
"We expect some of our younger guys will be much better players in February than they are right now," Howell said. "And that's going to help really strengthen our team."
Hoops Preview This is the seventh story in an 11-part series previewing the boys basketball season. Previous installments in the series are available at theheraldbulletin.com