Jimmy Cain's Blue Springs South boys basketball team is coming off a remarkable 24-3 season that featured the standout play of guards Justin Pitts, The Examiner's Player of the Year, and his backcourt mate for three seasons, Carl Martin.
They're gone, but don't shed a tear for Cain and the Jaguars, as one of the most highly recruited players in the metro area returns along with a lineup that features plenty of height and talent.
Kevin Puryear, a 6-foot-7 junior who already has NCAA Division I offers and countless looks, is back with 6-7 senior Kendall Blanton and 6-8 Jacob Towler.
“We've got some height,” Cain said, “and a lot of talent. I'm excited about the season, but ... it's going to be different looking out on the court and not seeing Justin and Carl out there. But they're going to do great things in college. Those are the type of kids you miss, but you just feel so honored to have been a small part of their high school career.”
An intriguing newcomer is 6-4 sophomore forward Briley Moore-McKinney, who enjoyed success at wide receiver for the Jaguars football team.
“Briley is an athlete,” Cain said. “Just look at what he did in football. You can't expect a player to make that kind of an impact before the season even starts in basketball, but he has the size and he certainly has the talent to make an impact. We're excited to see what he does.”
The big question for this year's team is simple: Who is going to get the ball to the big men?
“We will have more size than we have had at any time in the past,” Cain said. “We graduated eight seniors last season, and all of our guards will be newcomers with no experience. We feel like the newcomers bring talent to the table, but we will have to build chemistry this year while we get comfortable playing together.
“And I can see that already happening at practice. You can tell the guys like each other and have already taken big steps to becoming a team out on the court.”
Brad Oyler has a bit of an advantage over many of his coaching counterparts in Eastern Jackson County when it comes to assessing his Blue Springs South girls squad.
He's watched his team perform in a season-opening jamboree and two days later watched the Jaguars overcome a late Lee's Summit West rally to claim a 45-42 win over the Titans.
It was a typical opening game, with a twist.
“We made enough mistakes to have plenty to talk about in film study and practice,” Oyler said, “but we found a way to hold at the end to win, and that tells me something about the girls.”
Two familiar faces are back this season for the Jaguars in leading scorers Cloe Lane and Remy Davenport. Shannon Hughes is back and healthy after suffering through a variety of injuries, and some fresh new faces made an immediate impact in the opening win, including guard Tiffany Davenport, Remy’s freshman sister.
“Tiffany didn't look like a freshman (in the opener),” Oyler said. “She went out and played well, and led us in scoring and had a big defensive play. We saw a lot of good things tonight, and we can correct all the mistakes.”
Oyler believes his team has a nucleus that he can build around with complementary players who in turn will help the Jaguars enjoy a winning season.
“We're going to have to do the same things all successful teams do,” Oyler said. “We're going to pressure the ball full-court, be unselfish offensively, execute out offensive and defensive schemes and get the ball down the court.
“Team defense is going to be one of the most important aspects of our success. You can tell the girls really want to have a successful season, and I believe they will. We're going to be diving after loose balls, playing the type of defense you have to play when you're as small as we are and doing everything possible to avoid mistakes.”
All right, let's address the elephant in the room right off the bat. Austin Eads, one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of Blue Springs South High School, has graduated.
Eads, the only four-time state medalist in school history, has left some big shoes to fill, and coach Doug Black believes his team is up for the challenge.
“Our kids did a nice job of stepping up and competing at the highest level last year,” Black said. “We need some kids to step it up and be solid leaders because we have a tough kid to replace. We have some solid wrestlers back from the varsity team, and the junior varsity kids did a solid job and will be up for the challenge of moving to the next level.”
Black's 2012-13 squad set a school record with 14 victories despite the fact it had 11 new starters in the lineup.
“We were short of a full lineup the entire year due to kids not being ready for varsity action and we did not want to move young kids up before they were ready,” Black said. “The kids we put out there would go out and scrap like a bunch of dogs. I knew that I could count on them giving everything they had, win or lose. And that is all you can ask for as a coach in any sport.
“The kids we put on the mat bought into what we were doing and made teaching fun – and at time frustrating – but mostly, it was a lot of fun.”
State qualifiers returning from last year's team are Dalton Kenig, Christian Boyles, Wyatt Parker and Sam Hampton.
“We had several individuals who were just short of being state qualifiers, and I expect them to be solid contributors for the next couple of years,” the coach added.
Girls swimming & diving
Errich Oberlander can't wait for the start of the girls swimming season, even though he is still trying to savor every minute of his just-completed boys season that finished with a second-place trophy at state.
“I'm so excited about the girls season,” Oberlander said. “We have great numbers – 53 girls are out of the team – and that includes our returning letter winners, girls with some experience and girls who want to be a part of the team and have very little experience.
“It's kind of funny. We went to state with the boys, placed second, and then we came back and in a day and began the girls season. You wish you could have a little more time to appreciate what the boys did, soak it all in, but I don't want to take any time away from this girls team.
“They are so excited about what the boys did, and they are ready to get after it. We lost a lot of talent off last year's team, but the girls on this year's team are up for the challenge.”
The South girls won their first conference title last year, breaking the longtime stranglehold of crosstown rival Blue Springs. The Jaguars lost state finalists Morgan Connors and Emily Zweerink and all-state diver Bre Schlenger to graduation but return state qualifiers Kayla Canon, Bailey Barnett, Anna Munoz and Allie Steinhauser, who finished ninth in diving.
“When I came here five years ago I knew we could build something special with the boys and girls programs,” Oberlander said. “At first, it was like, 'We need to get swimmers qualified for state.' Now, it's like we need to win conference and bring back a trophy from state.
“The team approach and mentality has changed, and it's changed in a matter of just a few years. The great programs are consistent year in and year out, like they have done for so many years at Blue Springs.”
The Wildcats’ consistency is what Oberlander said he’s trying to build at South.
“I don't just want to win conference and then not be a contender the next year. I want to contend every year, and these girls are willing to do that. We have a lot of friendly competition between the girls and boys teams, and the boys had a great, great season. Now, we're all excited to see what the girls can do.”