Coach Neil Hayden felt his Daviess County High School boys’ basketball team was about to turn the corner last season when, in January, leading scorer and rebounder Cole Burch broke his foot.
The Panthers never quite recovered, finishing 11-17 and falling to Owensboro Catholic in the first round of the 9th District Tournament.
Now, the Panthers are trying to recover again after Burch, a 6-foot-3 senior center who averaged 13.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 18 games, re-injured his foot on the football field this fall.
Nonetheless, Hayden feels optimistic that the Panthers can make some noise in the 9th District 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 enough on defense to come away with some easy baskets. We need to improve our shot selection, make more 3-point baskets and continue to step it up a notch at the defensive end.
“We need to handle the ball well and score at a faster clip, and we need to shoot the ball better than we have the past couple of years. We have some athleticism and versatility that should help us improve in these areas.”
In addition to Burch, the Panthers will return 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, other than Cole, and his on-court leadership is invaluable,” Hayden said. “He was our leader in assists and our top 3-point shooter the past two years. He’s a coach’s son, so he knows how to play the game the right way.
“Gage will be one of our top scorers. He has a great mid-range game, and he just has a knack for scoring the basketball around the rim.”
Daviess County will also feature senior guard Denver Dickens, a transfer from Whitesville Trinity whose junior season was short-circuited by injury. In five games for the Raiders, though, he averaged 16.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
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“The thing about Denver is that he’s so versatile,” Hayden said. “He’s a great defender, he can handle the ball, and he can score. 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 Oberst and highly-touted sophomore guard Jaxon Brown.
“Evan is a big-body type who will help us on the 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’s going to be able to help us a lot as the season goes along.
“We have some pieces that can make us a quality basketball team, it’s just a matter of 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’ve been very pleased with our work in the preseason — this seems to be a very focused group, a hard-working group that understands what it takes to succeed at a high level,” Hayden said. “I think we’ll more fully develop our identity as the season goes along, but I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress since the end of last season.”
In the always-tough 9th District, Hayden knows the Panthers must be at their best to contend.
“We need to rebound, take care of the ball and figure out ways to get some easy baskets during the course of the game,” he said. “We’ve got to pound the offensive glass and get second-chance points against the better teams, there’s no doubt about it.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to this question, ‘Did we win in the paint?’ When we win the paint, the stats show that we win 75% of our games — so, for us, this is what makes the difference.”