Coach Neil Hayden felt his Daviess County High School boys’ basketball team was on the brink of extinction last season when top scorer and rebounder Cole Burch broke his foot in January.
The Panthers never quite recovered, finishing 11-17 and falling to Owensboro Catholic in the first round of the 9th Ward tournament.
Now the Panthers are trying to recover after Burch, a 6-foot-3 senior center who averaged 13.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 18 games, injured his foot again on the football field this fall.
Nonetheless, Hayden is optimistic that the Panthers can make waves in the 9th Ward and 3rd Region in 2022-23.
“I like who we are as a team,” Hayden said. “I think there’s a lot of balance in the region and we can be in the mix if we can disrupt our opponents on defense enough to get away with some easy baskets. We need to improve our shot selection, make more 3-pointers and keep stepping up the defensive.
“We have to handle the ball well and score faster and we have to shoot the ball better than we have in recent years. We have some athleticism and versatility that should help us improve in those areas.”
In addition to Burch, the Panthers will bring back senior point guard Jack Payne (6.5 ppg, 3 rpg) and junior swingman Gage Phelps (9.5 ppg, 3 rpg).
“Jack is probably our most experienced player next to Cole and his leadership on the pitch is invaluable,” said Hayden. “He’s been our leader in assists and our best 3-pointer for the last two years. He’s a coach’s son, so he knows how to play the game properly.
“Gage will be one of our top scorers. He’s got great midfield play and he just has a knack for hitting the basketball around the perimeter.
Daviess County will also feature senior guard Denver Dickens, a transfer from Whitesville Trinity whose junior season was cut short through injury. However, in five games for the Raiders, he averaged 16.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
“The thing about Denver is that it’s so diverse,” Hayden said. “He’s a great defender, he can handle the ball and he can score goals. He’s also a very capable 3-point shooter.”
Others in the mix for DC include senior center forward Evan Hillard, senior guard JR McCain, junior guard Houston Colonel and highly acclaimed second guard Jaxon Brown.
“Evan is a strong guy who will help us inside and JR is a team guy and a great defender,” Hayden said. “Houston is a great shooter.
“Jaxon is probably the best athlete we’ve had in the program since I’ve been here and he will be of great help to us as the season progresses.
“We have some pieces that can make us a top-flight basketball team. It’s just putting them together, playing as a unit and committing to getting the job done at both ends of the court.”
So far so good, according to Hayden.
“I was very happy with our work preseason – this seems to be a very focused group, a hard working group that understands what it takes to be successful at a high level,” said Hayden. “I think we’ll develop our identity better as the season progresses, but I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress since the end of last season.”
In the ever-tough 9th Ward, Hayden knows the Panthers have to do their best to survive.
“We have to bounce, watch the ball and find ways to get some easy baskets throughout the game,” he said. “We have to break the offensive glass and get second chance points against the better teams, there’s no doubt about that.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to boil down to this question: ‘Did we win in livery?’ If we win the paint, the stats show we win 75% of our games, so that makes the difference for us.”
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