WHEELING-It will be back to the basics and hopefully a return to business as usual this winter for the Wheeling Central Catholic boys' basketball team.
Following a rare season in which the Maroon Knights won five games and didn't make it out of the sectional tournament, Coach Mel Stephens is looking for a return to the norm this time around.
''Last year our inexperience showed in a lot of games," said Stephens, who will open his 10th season as head coach on Dec. 11 when Wheeling Central plays host to single-A rival Magnolia.
One favorable part of the Maroon Knights' usually demanding schedule is that they will start out with three straight home games as Shadyside and Linsly will follow the Blue Eagles' visit to the 13th Street Gymnasium. However, eight of the last nine games heading into OVAC tournament week are road games.
''With nine players returning that had varsity experience, we expect to be much improved,'' he said.
Central, however, will have to do without last year's leading scorer, all-state football standout Braxton Nolte who is not listed on this year's roster. Also gone is Jawaun Smith.
Along with the experience factor to be provided by the return of four starting players, Stephens also is looking to restore some of the work ethic that made this program one of the best in the state in past years.
''We are looking to get back to (the) Central basketball tradition of playing good, hard, solid defense and having a lot of guys share the wealth on offense,'' Stephens said.
Depth also should be better as evidence by the numerous strong battles for starting positions that took place during the preseason.
The leading scorer returning is highly regarded junior David Park (6-foot-4), who averaged 10 points per game while playing on the point and at the off guard position last year. Park is one of five players competing for jobs and significant playing time at the wing spots.
Two are returning senior lettermen Justin Hammers (6-1) and Brian Felton (6-0), while also pushing hard were promising freshman Chase Harler (6-2) and sophomore Nate Bakaitis (5-10).
Hammers started most of the games last winter and averaged 6 ppg., along with displaying a lot of hustle on both ends of the court. Felton was brought off the bench when some outside shooting help was needed.
Some newcomers getting a look are sophomores Joe Minor (5-7), John McLaughlin (5-10) and Alex Price (5-8).
Junior Thomas Stanley (5-8) and juniors Raquan Ingram (5-9) and Jonathan Droginske (5-10) continue to compete for the point guard position. All three have had opportunities to run the show in the past.
Most of the duty at the two post spots will be divided among seniors Chance Siebieda (6-2), Brandon Wallace (6-4), Michael Pleva (6-3) and junior Alonzo Manns (6-2). Sophomores Peter Hartzell (5-9) and Matt Pleva (5-10), Michael's younger brother, are looking for backup opportunities.
The goals are the same as ever for the Maroon Knights during Stephens' stewardship of the school's highly successful basketball program. ''We want to be improve every day and be playing our best basketball in March,'' he said.
This formula has worked consistently in his previous nine years. During this span, the Maroon Knights captured four state championships and were the West Virginia Class A runner-up on one occasion.