Coming off a magical season that included a regional title and a conference championship, there is a sense of optimism as the Benton Rangers prepare for the 2017-2018 basketball season.
The Rangers finished 31-3 a year ago, losing to Centralia in the sectional championship game at Benton. Benton was the runnerup to host Pinckneyville in the Duster Thomas Classic and finished 9-1 in the conference, its only loss to Murphysboro during the regular conference schedule. The Rangers swept through the Goreville Tournament and the Benton Invitational.
Benton defeated Carbondale in the regional championship game at Carterville -- the Rangers' third regional title in the last decade -- and its last since 2012.
Returning starters from that team include senior forward Parker Williams (6-2) and senior guard Hamilton Page (6-1). Sixth man Gehrig Wynn (5-10), a senior guard, and senior guard Cade Thomas (5-9), played in every Rangers' game a year ago.
Coach Ron Winemiller, beginning his ninth season, said there are at least four newcomers fighting for the fifth starting spot. They include senior Brett Bonenberger (6-3), juniors Braxton Lutz (6-5), Noah Kays (6-3) and Joey Craig (6-2). Depending on size matchups, Winemiller could go with a smaller lineup that would include senior Mason Morris (5-9) or sophomore Carson Lewis (6-2).
"Brett is really smart and he's a good passer, Noah is probably the purest scorer of the four, Lutz brings the most size and defensive rebounding and Joey is the best athlete. They each bring their own dynamic to the table. That's what we like about the versatility of those guys and it enables us to go where we need to go for each individual game.
"We do have some size this year, and hopefully, we can utilize that a little more effectively than we did last year with our lack of size," said Winemiller.
A number of players could evolve as Benton's go-to offensive fireplugs this season.
"Parker really evolved his game down the stretch last year. I felt like in the regional and sectional he played with as much confidence as he did all year and I think that carried over to what we saw in the summer. He's got to be a consistent scorer for us.
"Gehrig is another kid that has to score for us and Hamilton and Cade have got to be consistent in their scoring. They can't have 16 and then 2, 2 and 4. They have to be around double figures every game and we have to know we're going to get that," Winemiller said.
Whether the Rangers go inside out or outside to the post depends on the opponent.
"If we play a bigger team, we don't have great team size, then I think we'll be more perimeter oriented. With a smaller team, we can be more inside oriented. It more depends on who we play because we have the versatility to throw some different guys in there."
This year's team expects to run up and down the floor with its opponents.
"We've got to be good in transition. It's something that these guys since they were in the fourth and fifth grade have been good at, getting out and running the floor and scoring in transition. If we're going to have a successful season, we've got to score in transition," coach said.
Expectations remain optimistic, based on last year's success.
"These guys want to prove they can do it. These guys feel they can do some of the same things we did last year, to carry it on and continue to win. People like it when expectations are high here and I think our kids strive upon that and hopefully we can build upon last year," Winemiller said.
Winemiller tabbed Murphysboro and Harrisburg as the conference leaders, adding that West Frankfort will be much-improved and Massac County will have the most dominant individual in Isiah Thompson. He also mentioned Herrin could compete with two returning starters.
Winemiller said this year's team will play hard every game, represent the school and community well and place themselves in a position to win.
"If we can win close games, we're going to have a successful season," Winemiller concluded.