BY PEDRO VELAZCO
Western’s boys basketball team has grown accustomed to graduating important classes, then promoting role players to more important positions the next season and continuing without breaking stride.
The Panthers have to do that on the floor again this season, and face the extra challenge of doing the same thing on the sideline. Long-time assistant Bart Miller takes over as coach this season after Andy Weaver took the job at Plainfield.
“Transition’s going pretty smooth actually, we’re not changing a whole lot of things up,” Miller said. “We’re tweaking a thing here and there. [The players] have been receptive to those changes, but for the most part we’re keeping everything coach Weaver has done. He’s had great success here, we’re not going to do anything to deter from that.”
Three players with significant time under their belts return from last season’s 19-6 squad that won Mid-Indiana Conference and Class 3A Twin Lakes Sectional titles — 6-0 junior guard Evan Warden, 6-7 senior center Ronnie Smith and 6-3 senior forward/center Austin Townsend.
Warden averaged 11.5 points and 2.8 rebounds. Smith averaged 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. And Townsend averaged 3.4 points and 3.6 rebounds.
“Really, we’ve got three guys returning with significant varsity minutes,” Miller said. “Everybody else on the roster saw a spot minute here or there. We’ve got guys stepping up that were role players last year.”
Warden, who can play as a point guard or off the ball as a shooting guard, is the lone returning starter.
“It’s very nice to have Evan there, he knows how to handle the ball, he knows how to direct traffic out there, get guys in the right spots for us to be successful. He started every game last year as a sophomore and was in a lot of games as a freshman. Even though he’s a junior, he plays a lot of times like he’s a senior as far as leadership goes.”
Also on the roster are 6-0 sophomore guard Des Balentine, 5-11 senior guard Tyler Adams, 6-2 sophomore guard/small forward Austin Weaver, 5-10 senior guard Brad Hemmeger, 6-1 junior forward Mo Townsend, 6-1 senior forward Mitchell Shahan, and 6-3 senior forward/center Kyle Mendenhall.
Four players who may split time between varsity and JV are 5-10 junior guard Devon Eaker, 6-0 junior guard Chris Carter, 6-0 junior forward Zac Simpson, and 6-2 junior forward Nic Bewley.
“With the newcomers, it’s very similar to teams in the past,” Miller said. “We’ll be able to get up and down the floor. Rebounding is always a concern. We’ve got some size there, but if we happen to run into some foul trouble, we drop off in height quite a bit. Some of our newcomers are able to step in and knock down some shots, so I’m really excited about this upcoming year.
“I think we’ll be good at transition basketball, both offensively and defensively. I think we’ll be able to attack both inside and outside. We can go inside to our bigs with Ronnie and Austin Townsend and Mendenhall, and we can go outside to Evan, who can knock down the three.”
Miller also listed Balentine, Weaver, Mo Townsend and Adams as adept 3-point shooters, giving the Panthers plenty outside.
The Panthers have won back-to-back sectional titles, and won the MIC title last season with a 7-0 record so it’s important to the players and coaches that they get themselves in the mix for hardware again.
“We’re hoping to carry on the success of the program the last few years,” Miller said. “That’s obviously a goal to win the sectional. Obviously the conference is strong but we hope to be right up there with anybody else and get another conference championship as well. We’re really looking just to improve each and every week we’re out on the floor.”
Miller’s roots at Western run deep. He was a starter on the Panthers’ 1990 Kokomo Sectional championship team, and his father, Larry, was a long-time AD at the school.