The Pioneer boys basketball team will be at a disadvantage at the Cass County Tournament this week.
Due to the success of the football team, the Panthers won’t have much practice time together. They will also be without the Lewellen twins for the first two games of the season, as they took a little break following the heartbreaking semistate loss to Fort Wayne Luers.
“They needed the time off,” Pioneer coach Darren McKaig said. “They have been beaten up and done so much for Pioneer, I wanted them mentally ready.”
McKaig said all of the football players had the option of taking a week off following the tough loss.
“I want them to come into basketball mentally ready. So I gave them the option to take some time off because it’s always been rough, many of them are three-sport athletes. I understand how hard that is.”
McKaig, a 1997 Pioneer grad, is in his first year as the head coach of the Panthers. Former coach Austin Cowley is now the head coach at Delphi.
McKaig was previously the JV coach for the last five seasons. He’ll rely on several of those JV players from last year to step into varsity roles after heavy losses to graduation.
The Panthers have to replace Gage Cripe (16 ppg, 5 apg), Logan Nusbaum (14 ppg) and Jacob Brown (10.5 ppg).
The Panthers went 17-8 and won a share of the HNAC title a year ago.
They return Ezra Lewellen (8 ppg), Addai Lewellen (5 ppg) and Hunter Klepinger (2.5 ppg).
The Lewellens enter with a lot of varsity experience. They’ve been role players in the past in basketball but will be asked to do more this season for their senior seasons.
“We’re going to kind of center things around them,” McKaig said.
Klepinger is a 6-4 senior who will also be asked to do more.
“He’s going to have to,” McKaig said. “Jacob Brown, our main post player last year, averaged 10 ppg. So we’re going to try to get Klepinger as close to that as we can.”
The Pioneer JV went 16-6 a year ago. Some of those players also got some key varsity minutes towards the end of the season.
“Not enough but they were starting to get a little more confidence playing in varsity games probably the last five games of the year,” McKaig said.
Players stepping up into more prominent roles this season include senior Wyatt Zeider, juniors Brock Robinson, Christian Scott, Oscar Solano, Jacob Zeigler, Beau Mersch and Gavin Clem, sophomores Caleb Sweet and Eli Miller and freshman Drew McKaig.
The players will have to make the leap from the JV to varsity level.
“A lot of those juniors that are going to play for us, they were pretty effective,” McKaig said. “A lot of bigger bodies, some guys who are a little bit taller. We haven’t had a lot of tall guys in the past several years, but they’re a little bit taller and have some muscle to them. We’ll try to use them.”
Robinson is out until late December with a broken collarbone, McKaig said. He and Ezra Lewellen were going to be primary ballhandlers, so without them on the court to start the season, Drew McKaig will likely help fill that role early, coach McKaig said.
Eleven of the 21 players in the basketball program also played football. McKaig said the remaining 10 players did compete in a scrimmage against Attica on Nov. 21.
Pioneer opens the season against Caston on Wednesday at the Cass County Tournament at the Berry Bowl, following the girls game. It’s a rematch from last year’s sectional final that Caston won 44-40.
The Comets opened the season with a 53-49 loss at Wabash last Tuesday.
McKaig is looking for his squad to compete but knows it could be awhile until several of his players regain their basketball form.
“We always used to say the past five or six years when the football team makes such a deep run that you really can’t judge us until January. Some guys have five practices in, some guys won’t have enough practices in and we’ll be late December until we have our three weeks of practice time in with everybody.”