By Beau Wicker Pharos-Tribune
---- — ROYAL CENTER — Pioneer’s boys basketball team enters the season ranked No. 5 in Class A poll.
But the Panthers have no players back that saw any extensive varsity time from last year’s team that finished ranked No. 4, was a regional finalist and finished with a 21-4 record.
“Whether that’s a carry over from last year or from the success of the football team and how good they were with a young team this year, I’m not sure yet,” Pioneer coach Austin Cowley said of the high ranking. “It adds excitement to the team. The guys are all relatively new to varsity and they’re looking forward to getting out there and seeing if the ranking holds true for us. We’re being humble and not talking about it and we’ll see if we really are a top 10 team.”
Cowley takes the reins from Pat Skaggs who won four straight sectional titles at Pioneer. Skaggs took the job at Logansport following last season.
Pioneer dominated its sectional field a year ago, winning every regular season game by double digits and every sectional contest by at least 23 points.
Pioneer’s heavy losses to graduation seemingly leaves the field wide open.
Cowley coached the Pioneer JV team the last two years under Skaggs. The Panthers’ JV went 14-6 a year ago.
Cowley said the Panthers will not concede anything this season.
“We’ve won four in a row and these guys don’t want to be the ones to end that streak,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from former players and we still have a family program that coach Skaggs started, and we want to keep it rolling.”
Two of the Panthers’ top players are 6-2 sophomores Sam Kiser and Caleb Kindley.
The Panthers have two seniors on the team in 6-footer J.P. Smith and 6-2 Brad Biggs.
The Panthers caught a tough break when 5-7 freshman Keith Nies broke his collarbone in a regional football game against Winamac. Cowley hopes to have him back by the end of December.
Other key contributors look to be 5-7 sophomore Chad Clifford, 6-2 sophomore Zach Mason and 6-1 junior Deven Smith.
Two more freshmen could see varsity time later in the season in 5-7 Connor Kindley and 6-1 Cohen Nies.
Big Parker Englert, the 6-3 starting center on the football team, is also in the mix.
“We’ve got some decent size for being pretty young,” Cowley said. “I like the mentality that the football players bring and the whole team brings.
“I was on a good football team when I was in high school at Winamac. I always believe that carries over from the fall into basketball. I was excited to see how much improvement our young football team made from the beginning of the season, and they had a heartbreaking loss to Winamac in regional play. When they lost, they said, ‘Hey, Coach, when do you want us there.’ They had to get five practices in to be able to make the scrimmage so I told them that they needed to be here that Monday. They were all here and ready to go. They’re great kids and it’s really fun to coach them.”
The Panthers travel to Lafayette Jeff on Wednesday to start the season.
“Jeff is always tough every year,” Cowley said. “They graduated their best player from last year, No. 24 [Lucas Wallace], who was a pretty good player. We scrimmaged them this summer. They’ve got a few shooters and they’re really quick. We’ll have our hands full to keep them out of the paint and handle their fullcourt pressure. If we can handle the fullcourt pressure and handle the pace, I’d like to think we have a shot. We need to get it to a pace of the game that fits our style.”
The sectional this year is at Caston. The Comets, Panthers and North White look to be top contenders, with Winamac also in that mix in Midwest Conference play.
“Without being overconfident, we expect to be a contender at the sectional at Caston,” Cowley said. “We’ll prepare for a loud gym there. We expect to be in the mix of things at the end of the year.”