NAPPANEE — After posting a record of 107-18 over the previous five years, an inexperienced NorthWood boys basketball team dipped to 10-13 a year ago.
As head coach Aaron Wolfe begins is 13th season at NorthWood, the veteran coach is hoping the 2018-19 season was just a blip that all schools go through now and then.
"We had lost seven of our top eight players going into last season, so we were very young,'' Wolfe said. "This year, we have a good blend of younger mixed with some veterans that have been around the block a few times, so we're hoping to come back strong.''
This season, the Panthers have four starters returning, including the starting backcourt of senior Brock Flickinger and Ben Vincent. Junior Trent Edwards and classmate Jason Borkholder also return after starting for NorthWood in the Class 3A sectional last season.
Vincent and Edwards each averaged right at 13 points-a-game last season to pace the Panthers.
"I think it's always more comfortable for a coach when he has guards coming back,'' Wolfe admitted. "Offensively, they're going to have the ball in their hands most of the time and when you have veteran guards, they will have a better idea about where the good shots are going to be coming from.''
Wolfe said Flickinger will start most games at the point guard, but he is comfortable with the fact that nearly all the players on the team can play multiple positions.
Both standing 6-foot-3, Borkholder and Edwards are the tallest players on the Panther roster, so rebounding will be a priority after the graduation of Nick Bean.
"Borkholder moves well and is very athletic inside,'' Wolfe said. "He'll have to pick up some of the rebounding slack and play good interior defense, but I believe he's fully capable of that.''
Josh Stratford earned a letter last season and returns for his senior year as a 6-2 forward. Two 6-foot sophomores – Cooper Wiens and Jamarr Jackson – saw a little action last season and will be counted on to play bigger roles this year. Freshman Ian Raasch and Cade Brenner will also be in the mix for playing time.
"Our experienced players will have to play well and be consistent all season,'' Wolfe said. "Our younger guys will have to contribute and play well too of course. I feel the development of our team from November to March will be so important this year ... how everyone will mesh. It's very exciting to look ahead and get started.''
The Panthers open on Wednesday at the Panther Pit against Lakeland.
NorthWood will also host a five-team sectional this season, with Fairfield moving to Class 2A.
"I believe the sectional is totally wide open,'' Wolfe said. "I think if you touch base with all five coaches, we'll all say we have a strong chance to win the sectional title. We're really looking forward to hosting in the Panther Pit.
"I think Northridge, coming off that strong finish last year will be favored in the NLC, but you know Warsaw will be there with the players they have coming back and you can never really count anyone out in that conference. You have to come to play every conference game.''