The Central Cougars finally got their elusive state championship last season, finishing 34-1 and winning the Class 2A title behind a strong cast of talent led by all-stater Brandon Book and senior Nick Grapperhaus.
Both are gone, but the large target remains squarely on the backs of the Cougars. They split their first two games at the Effingham St. Anthony Tournament and are looking to quickly develop roles and chemistry.
"Last year we felt every time we stepped out on the floor we could win the ballgame if we played well -- and for the most part, that's what happened," Central coach Stan Eagleson said. "We had one of the best 2A players in the state in Brandon Book, but we just don't have anybody that's a significant scorer like that this year."
However, the Cougars should get plenty of scoring from aggressive junior guard Jacob Timmermann (8.5 points per game), senior guard Austin Rickhoff (6.5 ppg) and 6-6 senior Kyler Scheer.
Justin Becker (5.9 ppg) also returns and guard Luis Perez has showed some early scoring potential.
"He's one of our better outside shooters," Eagleson said of Perez. "He's played well for us in spurts and we've stressed for him to be more consistent."
Eagleson said Greg Meyer will pick up some of Timmermann's point guard duties and Luke Jackson figures into the mix as well.
Carlyle Indians coach Andy Palmer wasn't exactly overjoyed to see his team ranked first in the News-Democrat's Preseason Small-School (Class 1A-2A) Poll.
"It kind of surprised me, I certainly didn't expect to be in that spot," said Palmer, despite his squad returning the bulk of the talent from a 22-win squad a year ago and adding a returning player in Tyson Boehne. "I'd rather be No. 3, 4 or 5 or not even there. It puts a little bit of a target on your back, but hopefully the kids understand it's a little bit of respect for what they have coming back."
Palmer is on the money with that comment since the bulk of these players have been on the varsity for two or three years.
The Indians return three starters led by 6-3 junior scoring leader Matt Hilmes (12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds per game), 6-foot senior guard Cody Huels (12.5 ppg, 62 3-pointers) and 6-2 junior John Becker (5.4 ppg).
Boehne, headed for McKendree University on a baseball scholarship, was one of the team's top outside shooters before not playing last season to concentrate on baseball.
Also returning is 5-11 junior guard Logan Zachry.
"I'm pretty pleased with the progress a lot of them have made," Palmer said. "Hilmes is stronger and a lot more active; he has a lot more confidence in his game. All five guys can score some and I think we can be a little bit of a tough matchup because of that."
Palmer's concern, once again, is Carlyle's overall lack of height. The Indians' tallest players are the 6-3 Hilmes and 6-3 junior Wanya Walker, with the latter coming off the bench.
But if the Indians are draining outside shots, their biggest strength, there may not be as many rebounds to fight for.
"We have some guys that can really shoot it -- and not just one or two," Palmer said. "We should be able to put some points up and certainly the 3-point shot's going to be a big part of our game."
With four starters returning and an intriguing newcomer in 6-foot-6 freshman Royce Newman, look for the Nashville Hornets to make a big impact on the area small-school scene.
"We've got more depth at the forward and post spot than anywhere else and guard play is still good," said Nashville's Hall of Fame coach Brad Weathers, whose team has two outside threats in senior guard and defensive lockdown artist Scott Brown (10 ppg) and senior guard Chance Reuter ( 9 ppg).
Also back are 6-6 senior center Devin Holle (9.7 ppg), one of two all-conference players on the Hornets along with Brown, as well as junior guard Keegan Anderson (5 ppg).
"It's going to be a situation where we think we can be more than OK, we think we can be competitive," Weathers said. "But a lot's going to depend on how we handle the basketball and figure out our roles -- and settle into our roles."
Also in the mix are 6-3 junior forward Hunter Beetley and 6-1 junior Bruce Styninger who missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Daniel Thorson, a 6-1 sophomore guard-forward, became the team's sixth man last season as a freshman.
Newman (6-6, 222 pounds) also will contribute immediately on the varsity.
"He's going to help," Weathers said. "He's a big strong kid that's got good footwork and good skills around the basket."
Okawville has a new home gym and its own early-season tournament, but the Rockets won't change their usual approach when it comes to defense and fundamental basketball.
The Rockets' season ended with a triple-overtime loss to Madison in the Class 1A Gibault Regional and plenty of talent graduated from that Okawville squad.
Two strong building blocks return in 6-2 senior guard Jeremy Weeke (14.1 ppg) and 5-10 junior Jacob Brammeier (6.9 ppg). Other key contributors are Connor Obermeier, Jake Hensler and Zach Yehling, all of which saw action a year ago.
Being back in Class 1A again this season should help the Gibault Hawks if they can figure out a way to advance out o their regional.
Last season's regional champ Madison joined Gibault and Okawville in a loaded early-round playoff field.
"Last year we got the break and went into 1A, but we went into the best 1A regional in the state," Gibault coach Dennis Rueter said. "We'll see what happens this year. At the 1A level, if we can out of the regional we've got a chance."
A strong cast of returnees has Rueter and the Hawks optimistic about a solid season once again.
We're pretty deep," Rueter said. "It remains to be seen if we've got one or two good varsity players, but we've got eight guys that are varsity-caliber players without question. For a school our size, it's not often you can say that."
Gibault has two strong scorers in senior Matt Schreder (10.5 ppg) and junior Wes Degener with more offensive threats back led by senior Brendan McFarland (5.6 ppg) and juniors Mitch Meyer (5 ppg) and Nick Row (4.8 ppg).
The Hawks also return 6-8 senior center Jake Weiler, junior Zach Neff and 6-5 senior Sam Toal, who missed last season because of a back injury.
Mater Dei (21-8)
Former Mater Dei All-Area guard Cory Arentsen is now playing for Division I Austin Peay, but the Knights still have a prolific scorer returning in senior guard Adam Etter (8.7 ppg).
Etter fired in 27 points Tuesday in the Knights' season-opening 81-76 overtime victory over Gateway Tech at the Waterloo Round-Robin Tournament.
Also returning are 6-7 senior Jared Kampwerth, Mitchell Langenhorst (6.6 ppg, 52 3-pointers), Bryton Timmermann (5.3 ppg, 27 3-pointers), Ben Lampe and Nick Hitpas.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454