Cahokia's 2011-12 basketball season ended with a one-point loss to rival East St. Louis in the Class 3A Althoff Regional championship game.
The Comanches clawed their way back from deficits of 16 points and 13 points to tie it late in the fourth quarter. But mistakes and missed free throws led to the final outcome as their season ended with a 23-8 record and 9-1 mark in the South Seven Conference.
Returning all but one starter from one of the most talented 3A teams south of Chicago should give the Comanches more than enough motivation to strive for a deeper playoff run this season.
"It was very tough. That still lingers on to this day," Cahokia coach Darian Nash said of the regional loss. "But the only way we can forget about that is to win a regional championship this year."
Expectations are high and Nash admits there is extra pressure on this special group.
"There's always pressure," he said. "Any time people talk about you having talent or that you're loaded, there's always pressure. We can't worry about that, we're just going to go play our game."
Cahokia opens the season with a 7:30 p.m. game Monday against the host Lincoln Railsplitters at the Lincoln Thanksgiving Tournament.
"It's just going to be an exciting year," said Nash, who is fielding plenty of recruiting interest in his upperclassmen. "I don't know if we have the firepower everybody says we have, but if we work harder on the defensive end we'll be very competitive."
Six-foot-two senior guard Keenan Minor, 6-7 junior guard-forward Darius Austin and 6-6 senior forward Vincent Jackson head an outstanding returning cast. All three averaged in double-figures a year ago.
Minor is a potential Division I prospect whose shooting range begins once he crosses the half-court line. He was an honorable mention all-state pick as a junior when he averaged a team-leading 17.3 points per game with 47 3-pointers and 39 steals.
Minor also won the "King of the Hill" 3-point shooting contest last March at the state tournament in Peoria.
The versatile Austin (11.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game) also has heavy Division I interest from schools like Illinois. Missouri, Butler, DePaul, St. Louis University, Tennessee and others.
Jackson averaged 10 points and four rebounds.
"On any night, any one of those guys can put in 20 or 30 points on you," Nash said. "I think we have plenty of possible scorers, all of them are threats. We've always instilled in them not being selfish, they're sharing the ball pretty well. I think they have that camaraderie going."
Also back are 6-3 junior point guard Carleton Rivers (7.9 ppg), senior guard Derenzo Jennings (8.1 ppg) and 6-4 junior Gary Hickman.
Nash's talent pool doesn't end there. Ready to contribute are 6-9 sophomore Devante Williams and seniors Phillip Scott and Michalan Raymond.
What do you give the team that seemingly has everything?
How about a bruising defensive end from the football team in senior Timothy Nicholson and a potential future star in sophomore point guard Montez Crumble.
"Experience will be the difference," Nash said. "It's the same guys with another year of experience."
Nash said it will likely be defense --not offense -- which determines Cahokia's potential this season.
"If we're not shooting well from the outside, we've got the post presence so I think scoring will not be a question," he said. "It's how well can we play defense and can we stop somebody. We've got a lot of unfinished business."
That being said, Class 3A has not gotten any easier with teams like East St. Louis and former 2A heavyweight Alton Marquette vying to win the same postseason trophies.
"It's always going to be tough, anything worth having is not easy to get," Nash said. "The target's on our back, so we've got to step up."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.