NAPPANEE — Twenty wins is a tall order in any season, but if the NorthWood Panthers can swing it for a fourth straight season, they'll match Elkhart High School 63 years earlier as the only boys basketball programs in Elkhart County history to manage the achievement.
NorthWood would seem to have a running jump-start toward the feat with three starters back from last season's 24-3 club that set school standards for wins and winning percentage.
Conversely, the two who have graduated are two-time Elkhart Truth All-Area first-team cornerstones Braxton Linville at point guard and Dakiyron Fox inside.
"It's always exciting to see how each team forms a new identity," coach Aaron Wolfe said Wednesday, "and there are a lot of unknowns for our team."
What is known is that seniors Vinny Miranda, Trey Bilinski and Luke Zurcher are those returning starters.
Junior Caleb Lung joins them in the lineup after being a key backup a year ago, while juniors Brad Delio and Caleb Glick are vying for the remaining slot after helping lead a 15-5 JV club.
Miranda, who averaged a team-leading 16.2 points to go with 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals, accompanied Fox and Linville as an All-Area first-teamer last March, but now he becomes an increased focal point for opponents.
"It's going to be a new role for Vincent this year," said Wolfe, whose team opens Friday by hosting Triton. "He's going to play much more point guard than he has the past two years, and obviously, a lot of how quickly we're able to find our identity as a basketball team will be predicated on Vincent adapting to his new role.
"It's good that he's met many challenges in his basketball career before and has done well in those scenarios. Vincent's always been special in how he's worked in the offseason, and this year has been no different. He's an improved basketball player."
Bilinski, like Miranda, is a third-year starter. Unlike Miranda, Bilinski is coming off an extended football season, quarterbacking the Panthers to Class 4A state runner-up honors last week.
"The addition of Trey this week has been helpful," Wolfe said of the 6-foot-4 forward who averaged 6.7 points and 3.7 rebounds last season while shooting 62 percent from the field. "Both Trey and Luke will be in new roles. Both of them have grasped senior leadership extremely well. Both will become primary scorers for our basketball team. Both can be productive offensively, defensively and in rebounding."
Zurcher averaged 7.8 points last winter and shot 41 percent from 3-point range.
Lung averaged 3.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12 minutes per game as a sophomore.
Wolfe names DeAndre Smart, the lone varsity player besides Bilinski over from the football team, as a contender for playing time, along with Luke Holland, Kaden Gongwer, Terrell Pratcher, Jordan BeMiller and Jared Hoffman.
NorthWood's 24-3 showing last season — capped by a 66-62 regional title-game loss to host and eventual 3A state champion Marion — followed efforts of 21-3 and 23-3, with all of those teams winning sectional titles.
That gives the Panthers the second-best record in the state over the last three years at 68-9, just behind Barr-Reeve's 72-9.
"We've been blessed with some tremendous players, tremendous parental support and a tremendous administration," Wolfe said. "Our coaching staff at all levels has been invested in the program. It's been a special experience.
"I think our players that are part of our varsity program understand what the previous players have done before them, not only during the season, but in the offseason. ... Some of those players will be looking for their identity now and are untested. We're fortunate to play 22 games before we get to the tournament."
Coach: Aaron Wolfe (145-68 in 9 seasons at NorthWood).
Assistants: Phil Lechlitner, Zac Lechlitner, A.J. Risedorph, Trevor Shields, Sam Sheets, Dennis Hershberger, Doug Gerber.
December: 2 - Triton. 8 - Westview. 10 - at Fairfield. 13 - at Jimtown. 16 - at Plymouth (c). 22 - vs. Liberty Christian at Marion (11 a.m.). 29-30 - Dan Gunn Classic at NorthWood (Edwardsburg, Mishawaka, SB Clay).
January: 6 - Wawasee (c). 10 - New Prairie. 13 - at Northridge (c). 14 - vs. FW Dwenger at Hoosier Gym, Knightstown. 20 - Goshen (c). 21 - at Lakeland. 27 - at Warsaw (c).
February: 2 - Concord (c). 7 - at West Noble. 10 - at Elkhart Memorial (c) (North Side Gym). 11 - at Bethany Christian. 17 - Elkhart Christian. 18 - at SB St. Joseph. 21 - at Manchester.
(c) - denotes Northern Lakes Conference games.