By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
LAPEL, Ind. —
The Lapel boys basketball team’s wild ride last season came to a crashing halt with a 70-51 loss against rival Frankton in the first-round of sectional play.
But head coach Jimmie Howell, who opens this year just five wins short of 500 for his career, said there really isn’t a sense of unfinished business for the Bulldogs.
“For the season, I thought last year’s group overachieved,” Howell said. “I never imagined they would win 17 games. The way it finished wasn’t fun, and everybody wants to get that taste out of their mouths. But this is a different team.”
Lapel finished 17-5 a year ago and won nine straight games between Jan. 6 and Feb. 9. But the Bulldogs’ lost three starters — Boston Fields, Andrew Gibson and Matthew Conrad — to graduation, and they will welcome a host of new faces this winter.
Even some of the returning faces will have a different look.
Senior Tanner Watkins finished second on the team with 13.7 points per game last season and led Lapel with 6.1 assists per game. But he shot 46.8 percent from the floor overall and 28.2 percent from 3-point range.
After a strong summer filled with improvement, Howell expects both numbers will rise this year.
“He put a lot of time into it in the offseason and made a lot of strides,” Howell said. “He’s a much more complete player this year.”
The Bulldogs’ other returning starter, Drew Norton, also has grown. Literally.
Lapel’s leading scorer (14.5 points per game) and rebounder (5.2) a year ago now stands 6-foot-5 and tips the scales at 205 pounds.
“We’re going to be a lot bigger than we’ve been in the past,” Howell said.
Indeed, six of the 11 Bulldogs on the roster weigh more than 200 pounds. Senior Brandon Hardwick towers above them all at 6-8 and 245 pounds.
He’ll have a bigger role this season along with sophomore Brady Cherry — a multi-sport star who made his greatest impact on the baseball diamond last spring — and junior Josh Erwin — a 6-3, 205-pounder who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“He’s still not 100 percent back from the injury,” Howell said. “But he’s getting better.”
Others expected to be part of a deep rotation include juniors Bailey Partington, Mitchell Richardson and Dane Mason and sophomore Noah Hendershot.
The schedule does Lapel few favors, with two games against Anderson as well as dates with defending Class 3A state champion Guerin Catholic and two-time Class 2A champ Park Tudor in the first nine contests.
Howell expects the Bulldogs to improve as the season rolls on, and much of their success ultimately could come down to their two most experienced players — Watkins and Norton.
“I think they’re both ready to have really good years this year as seniors,” Howell said.