A new year, a new coach and a new look to the Chickasha boys basketball team has some questioning whether or not they can achieve their state semifinal feat again this season.
All of that is, of course, speculation, but one thing is for sure: they're tired of hearing those questions and ready to discount them.
"There's not much experience coming back from las year, but I have guys that are hungry," first-year head coach Nathan Pennypacker said. "They want to prove everyone wrong."
It's true that not many had expected last year's team, led by seniors E.J. Golightly and Joey Sylvester, to rise to the heights that they did. Doubters are nothing new to the Fightin' Chicks, nor Montana Stonecalf, one of the returning players from last year.
"It was the motivation to prove everyone wrong," Stonecalf said of that late season run. "Everyone was doubting us, just like they're doubting us now. We set that as a mindset, for the people that are on the court to prove them wrong, and we did."
The motivation may be the same, but this Chickasha team is undoubtedly smaller this year compared to last. What they have lost in height, point guard Brandon Shumway said, they have gained in speed and swiftness.
"We're small this year, but I think we'll be able to keep up with teams by running the floor on them," Shumway said. "We're fast and we can get down the court better than a lot of people. Our press is going to help us, too."
The sophomore will be expected to carry much more on his shoulders than last year as the leader of the offensive side of the ball. Pennypacker says Shumway "will have to be me out on the court," and has spent a lot of time on the young guard.
"Every day we have conversations about the role he'll play," Pennypacker said. "I like that."
Shumway also said the team will focus more on outside shooting this year, but that's not to say they don't have the front court to bump around down low. T.J. Filer and Stonecalf will provide the muscle to the starting lineup, although it'll be a few weeks before they can team up. Stonecalf is nursing an ankle injury he suffered at the end of football season. He expects to be back next week, but will probably have to wait another seven days at least before suiting up.
"T.J. is the big guy down low," Pennypacker said. "He does a lot of the things you don't notice as much like playing solid defense and getting important rebounds."
Taray Thomas is another player expected to have a significant impact, Pennypacker says, but he's also confident in most of the players taking part in preseason. Whereas last year there was a lot of talent in two players, Stonecalf said, this year there are plenty of contributors.
"I think we have more talent," Stonecalf said. "Joey and E.J., they were kind of our big two, and now it's more spread out. We're mostly young, so we've got a lot to learn. Other than that, once we're learning, teach them how to use their talent, we should shock people again."
It's a long season, and maintaining such confidence will be important to Chickasha getting all they can out of this group of players. The early signs suggest that shouldn't be a problem.
"We always talk about being elite," Pennypacker said. "Everyone's buying into what we have and showing up ready to work. Of course I think we can make it [to state], but more importantly, the kids believe it."