“Nobody was more shocked at that No. 2 ranking than I was,” Heny said.
Heny expects to see plenty of parity in 3A this season, with close games and tight races all season long.
“It’s just going to be one of those years where everybody can beat everybody else and you’re just going to have to get hot at the right time to make that run for state,” Heny said.
Heny said the team’s goals are always realistic, and he has his sights aimed high again this season.
“Our goal is always to play Saturday at state. And hopefully that’s the Saturday afternoon game and not the Saturday morning game like it was last year,” Heny said.
The Panthers won the consolation championship game at state after a 22-6 season saw them win their conference and place fourth at regionals.
But Heny expects this season to be a bit of a struggle as the team looks to reload after losing four starters to graduation.
Rebuilding and success aren’t mutually exclusive, however.
Returning all-conference starter Marshall McArthur, one of only three seniors on the squad, will lead the Panther offense.
“He’s going to be very important to a lot of the things we do,” Heny said.
McArthur will spend a lot of time handling the ball, Heny said, but is versatile enough to play elsewhere if it causes a mismatch for the opponent.
“Marshall will run wherever we need him to run,” Heny said. “This year he will be coming from a lot of different spots on the floor to try to make sure we utilize his talents.”
The Panthers will run a fast-paced, dribble-drive offense that relies on lane penetration and spot up shooting from the perimeter.
“We haven’t had, since I’ve been coach, a true center,” Heny said. “We’re going to have to beat people off the bounce or from the perimeter a lot because of our size.”
Heny said this year’s team will feature a deeper set of shooters than last year, though he acknowledged the loss of leading scorer and deft shooter Chase Partridge will take a toll.
Partridge broke the Panthers’ single-season scoring record, partly due to his strong 3-point shooting.
Heny said the team’s lack of elite size will affect the defensive side of the ball more than the Panthers’ ability to score, especially against teams like Lander and Jackson, who have what Heny calls “true post” players.
“By the same token, they won’t match up with us on the perimeter because of their height and ability to guard on the perimeter.”
The key to games in which the Panthers are out-sized will be strong team defense, Heny said. The Panthers will play out of a man-to-man base defense but will mix it up and show teams other looks when necessary.
“We can’t afford to give other teams second and third chance points if we’re going to expect to win close games,” Heny said. “And most the games that we play this year are probably going to be close games.”
A deep bench will allow Heny to rotate guys into the post and mix and match depending on the Panthers’ opponent.
Senior Vince Sleep, juniors Hayden Cragoe, Garrett Lynch and Garrett Michael and sophomore Carter Baxter all will see time down low, Heny said.
Heny said his bench should offer him the versatility to play each guy to his strength, whether that be to score or defend.
The level of competition in the 3A West conference will make each night crucial to the team’s postseason aspirations.
“Stealing road wins in conference is going to be huge and making sure you take care of home court is just as big of a task,” Heny said.
Heny expects each game to be close and crucial.
“There’s no team on our schedule that we can’t beat. And there’s only a couple that you hope can’t beat you.”
The struggle for Heny will be to figure out what he has on this year’s team.
“Number one, we’re going to have to figure out right away what guys bring what to the table,” Heny said. “We’re going to have to have more guys contribute on the offensive end than we’ve had in the past.”
Youngsters such as sophomore guard Kalei Smith will be counted on to contribute early on as the team searches to find its identity and its players their roles.
“If you look around the state kids are breaking in younger and younger,” Heny said. “This day and age, those young kids are hungry and when they get their chance they’ve got to step in and contribute right away.”
Heny said Smith is one of the team’s better players and will need to play impactful minutes for the Panthers.
“He’s put in a lot of work and we’re going to need him to contribute a lot this year,” Heny said.
Smith played Amateur Athletic Union basketball this summer and has shown himself to be one of the team’s better athletes in practice.
When young players come up to varsity Heny tells them, “Don’t try to reinvent your game. Do what you do best.”
Heny said about half of the team’s players played for the 3A state champion Panthers football team and weren’t able to start playing basketball until the football season ended.
Heny said the team is in decent physical shape for this early in the season but has to improve its fitness during this week of practices and over this weekend’s tournament.
The Panthers will compete in the Buffalo Invitational Friday and Saturday. Heny said the biggest challenge with early season tournaments is being fit enough to play three games in two days. He said players’ minutes will be monitored.
Powell will host the regional tournament Feb 28.-Mar. 2.