MISHAWAKA — Name tags might have been needed at the start of boys basketball practice at Penn High School.
Penn coach Al Rhodes, who's entering his 39th year as a varsity coach and owns a 619-289 career record, isn't used to working with such a young squad.
"Maybe my 1981-82 team at Warsaw was similar in inexperience and they won only four games," said Rhodes. "Other than that I really don't remember having a team that was so inexperienced."
Only Carter Hickey (5.3 PPG) and Derek Derda (3.6 PPG) on this year's team have significant varsity experience.
Hickey is the lone returning starter from last year's squad, which finished 24-4 and were Northern Indiana Conference, sectional and regional champions.
Heading the list of players lost were Hillsdale College recruit Noah Applegate (20.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG) and University of Incarnate Word recruit Drew Lutz (18.8 PPG, 7.5 assists a game, 2.5 steals a game). Both were first-team selections on The Truth's All-Area Team, with Applegate winning his second straight Player of the Year Award.
Applegate finished his career with a Penn-record 1,709 points and Lutz also finished his career with over 1,000 career points. The duo was the first teammates in Penn history to score 1,000 career points and have 500 points in a season.
The other two starters lost to graduation were Beau Ludwick (11.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Kegan Hoskins (8 PPG, 5 RPG). Ludwick is playing basketball at Holy Cross College.
"They helped Penn make the Final Four for only the third time in the school's history," Rhodes said about the impact the graduated players made on the program. "Their ability as basketball players were on display consistently. We had a very special year last year. Definitely, every team aspires to do what last year's team did."
Hickey and Derda will be in different roles and it may take time for them to feel comfortable in those roles.
"It's a rough transition for (Hickey and Derda) because Applegate and Lutz handled all the leadership responsibilities," Rhodes said. "They're not in the same roles as a year ago so it's going to be challenging for them."
When it comes to the rest of the varsity roster, Rhodes isn't putting extra pressure or high expectations on any particular player.
"It will be a group effort," Rhodes said. "They've been trying to learn what the varsity level is all about. It's hard to simulate in practice what varsity basketball is all about. They're practicing hard on defense. I still don't know how we're going to execute on offense. We'll be an OK rebounding team. We usually win the rebounding battle with the system we have. If we can find a way to score enough points I think we can competitive."
Rhodes likes the attitude of this year's unit.
"They have a willingness to learn which is very good," Rhodes said. "It's a growth process. Leadership needs to develop. There's a lot of underclassmen and we'll see how things develop."
Rhodes admits he probably won't have a starting lineup in place until right before the season opener against Fort Wayne Carroll on Nov. 30.
"I usually have the same starting lineup throughout the season," Rhodes said. "But it's more important who finishes a game. We have to find kids to play the last four minutes of a varsity basketball game. That's more important than who starts. An inexperienced team sometimes doesn't understand that."
Rhodes got an early peak at his team and how they would respond to the pressure of a varsity game on Nov. 21 in a scrimmage against LaPorte.
"I would say I was happy with our defense and we won the rebounding battle," Rhodes said. "But we struggled a lot on offense. We've got to find a way to raise our field goal percentage. We have to have good shot selection and have patience. All things inexperienced teams do, we do, which isn't good."
Passion within Rhodes to keep coaching remains high, despite having a very young squad to mold this season.
"I've loved basketball my whole life," Rhodes said. "That's never going to change. I enjoyed being a player and I've enjoyed being a coach.
"There are many challenges. Every year is a puzzle. I'd rather have more experienced players back and try to fight for a state championship. It's a different type of challenge the next couple of years. We hope to competitive for championships once our younger players gain some experience. Now, we're basically chasing everyone. Everyone on our schedule has more players back than we do.''
Coach: Al Rhodes, 12th season.