PENDLETON — The last time the Pendleton Heights boys basketball team had this much experience returning, the Arabians finished 23-3 and were ranked No. 2 in Class 4A.
The program has won 13 postseason games and advanced to five consecutive sectional finals in the past five years. And last year's team went 16-8 while dealing with a host of injuries.
But Pendleton Heights coach Brian Hahn isn't interested in the past. All he's concerned with is finding a way to help this roster reach its full potential.
"We never look back," Hahn said. "All we think about is this year and growing. The kids are working hard, and they understand that we have to get better every day."
It was a trying season for the Arabians on and off the court a year ago.
Leading scorer Sean McDermott was hospitalized just before the start of the season with a severe staph infection that briefly threatened to end his career. The 6-foot-5 shooter remarkably returned in early January and played through pain the rest of the way.
He regained strength throughout the summer and officially signed last week to play next year at Butler, where he will join forces with former Pendleton Heights star Kellen Dunham.
"I'm really excited for Sean," Hahn said. "He had a great summer, and he's ready to go full speed. Like everybody else, he just needs to continue to improve."
For all of the Arabians' experience, McDermott is the team's only senior. There are eight juniors on the roster, including returning starters Caleb Hardy and Kenton Dunham. Logan Robertson and Max Grbic also have varsity experience, and Conner Gustin and Logan Drye are making the leap from junior varsity.
Sophomore Mark Albers also is back in the mix after making a handful of starts last year.
The schedule is as unforgiving as ever, beginning with Tuesday's opener against rival Anderson. The teams split a pair of games last year, with the Indians winning in the Madison County tournament and Pendleton Heights answering in the sectional, but they haven't played during the regular season since the 2001-02 campaign.
"I just think it's fantastic," Hahn said of the opener. "We've been trying to get this done for a number of years. It's such a great rivalry. The kids really enjoy it, and it's a great way to open the season."
The Arabians further strengthened an already difficult slate by adding a Dec. 19 home game against Class 4A preseason No. 1 Carmel. Pendleton Heights will also host fifth-ranked Hamilton Southeastern (Dec. 6) and eighth-ranked North Central (Feb. 24) and travel to fourth-ranked Pike on Jan. 31.
Class 3A No. 1 Guerin Catholic will visit the Arabians on Feb. 20.
"I'm a firm believer in competing," Hahn said. "We want to compete against the best, and you can learn a lot from losing. But you learn the most about yourself from competing against great teams."
Pendleton Heights enters every season with the same three goals — win the county championship, win the Hoosier Heritage Conference and win the sectional.
This group appears poised to compete for all three titles, but the Arabians are taking nothing for granted.
They understand how difficult it is to win at this level, and they're looking forward to the challenge.
"I'm happy with the effort," Hahn said of the team's preseason work. "I think the kids are really working hard. We've got a lot of potential to be successful this year, and we have a lot of things we can getter better at. We just have to keep working and learning and trying to improve every day."