O'FALLON — With three returning starters and a long list of prospects, the O'Fallon Panthers appear to be on their way back.
Juniors guards Donovan Franklin and Darien McClain and forward Parker Roustio lead a team that surprised Belleville East and Collinsville to win the Class 4A O'Fallon Regional in March.
The Panthers then lost to Southwestern Conference champion Edwardsville 59-38 in the semifinals of the Pekin Sectional at Alton High. The Tigers outscored O'Fallon 35-20 in the second half.
Ninth-year O'Fallon coach Rick Gibson hopes the late-season progress was a sign of better things to come. The Panthers open the season at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Washington in the Washington Tournament of Champions.
"If you're picking the top (teams) in the conference, you're probably not going to mention us," said Gibson, whose team finished 9-20 overall and 2-12 in the SWC. "But for a lot of years, we have been up there at the top of the conference and we've represented the conference and Southern Illinois well with trips to state and trips deep into the postseason.
"Last year, we got on the other end of that. That's not O'Fallon basketball. We expect to get back there to where we've been, and we hope this is the group to do that."
The 6-foot-6 Franklin, who played both guard spots last season, emerged as one of the best players in the metro-east, averaging 15.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. Gibson expects Franklin to be more versatile this season with added strength.
"Late in the year and then the postseason, he was as good as just about anyone around," Gibson said. "He's grown a little bit more. He's committed himself much more to the weightroom and he's gotten stronger.
"Last year, he was a kid that shot the ball well from the perimeter. When he went inside, he kind of got knocked around a little bit. With him growing a little bit and getting stronger, I think you're going to see where he's able to go in there and finish now."
Franklin's 27 3-pointers last season ranked second to the 5-10 McClain, who takes over as the full-time point guard after averaging 5.9 points and leading the Panthers in steals with 36 last year.
McClain was a big part of O'Fallon's regional title, hitting two late 3-pointers against Collinsville.
"He started last year as a JV starter for us," Gibson said. "The second half of the year, he was running the show for us at the varsity level and did a real nice job. He can play the one and handle it, but we can also slide him over to the two and he can fill it up from out there. He shoots the ball and handles it so well."
The 6-4 Roustio, like Franklin, has been playing at the varsity level for two seasons and could be ready to take off. He averaged 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds last season while nailing 19 3-pointers.
"Parker is another kid with a lot of versatility," Gibson said. "He can play a three for us because he shoots the ball so well. He's also put on some good size and weight and muscle. He can go in and bang around in there."
Naason Cook, a 5-10 senior, will start at shooting guard. Isaiah Armstrong, a 6-3 senior, also will start. Gibson said Cook, a tough defender, has become a more polished offensive player. Armstrong will be expected to provide solid defense and rebounding.
Jacob Lochmann, a 6-4 senior, will be one of the Panthers' first players off the bench. Others will be 6-8 junior Nathan Cokenour, 6-1 junior sharpshooter Caleb Wegner, promising 6-3 sophomores Chance Armstrong (Isaiah's brother) and Brad Harrison, and 5-11 senior Ricky Recci-Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico.
"Nathan Cokenour is a name no one has heard of," Gibson said. "Last year, he was about 6-4. Now this year, he's a legit 6-8. His size alone is going to demand that he plays a little bit. We don't have a whole lot of size. He's going to get a chance."
Gibson said Chance Armstrong already is getting feelers from Division I programs.
"He's got the potential," Gibson said. "We've had several Division I schools that have been in here that are all over him and are really interested in him because he's just a freak of an athlete. The kid's dunking off the drop-step right now and he runs the floor so well. And he has the size and he's shooting the ball well.
"Once he gets experience, his ceiling is so high. The second half of the season, teams are going to be like, 'Where did this kid come from?'"
Harrison isn't far behind, Gibson said.
"He's impressed me as much as any kid," Gibson said. "He's the most solid, fundamental kid we have in our program. He's going to get some chances. As the season goes on, you're going to see him playing a ton."
Panthers to aid Washington
O'Fallon's annual Blue-Gold Game will be at 6 p.m. (freshman-sophomore) and 7:15 (varsity) Friday.
Fans attending the game are asked to bring canned goods, and the Panthers will take the food to Washington on Tuesday. Washington was hit hard by a tornado Saturday and many of its residents are homeless.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.