Only one Class 3A basketball team in Illinois finished higher than the Cahokia Comanches last season.
Cahokia lost 63-48 to Morgan Park in the 3A state championship game, but the Comanches proved they could hang with the top teams in the state along the way to Peoria.
"Getting to state was a great thing, it shows what hard work will do," said Cahokia coach Darian Nash, whose team finished 33-4 and is fortunate the Comanches return much of the talent from that squad. "Those guys underneath these upperclassmen can see what hard work can do and it lays a road map of how hard you need to work to get to state.
"Hopefully we can get back there."
Led by Division I recruits Darius Austin and C.J. Rivers, the Comanches should be among the top teams in the state once again. Cahokia begins the season ranked second in the Class 3A preseason state poll behind No. 1 North Chicago.
The 6-foot-7 Austin signed with Missouri-Kansas City and Rivers signed with Drake. Austin had 26 points and 12 rebounds and Rivers fired in 20, including four 3-pointers, in Cahokia's season-opening 69-62 victory over Morton on Monday at the Lincoln (Ill.) Round-Robin Tournament.
Austin averaged 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, but figures to assume much more of a scoring role with former Comanches all-state guard Keenan Minor (21 ppg, 101 3-pointers) now playing for Southwestern Illinois College.
"He's more aggressive, more of a take-over guy so far, so I hope that continues," Nash said. "He's been working that much harder too."
The same holds true for the 6-foot-3 do-everything Rivers, who breaks down opposing defenses with his quickness and ability to get to the rim.
"We can't replace Minor, but we can try to chip away and get two or three guys to chip in points for us," Nash said.
Also returning are talented 6-6 senior Gary Hickman, who had 12 points in the opener, 6-9 junior DeVonte Williams and quick guards Montez Crumble and 6-4 junior Tramon Jackson.
Also in the mix are Antonio Donald, Jeremy Franklin and LaMonte Young.
"There's 12 guys that are going to see a lot of time," Nash said.
Nash has noticed a much hungrier attitude around this team, perhaps fueled by the state tournament trip a year ago.
"They work harder and we don't have to get on them like last year," Nash said. "These guys really come in and get after it every day, do the little thing that we ask them to do. We're better defensively, too."
They're also better at the guard spot thanks to the recent transfer of former Belleville West sophomore Tarkus Ferguson. Nash said the Illinois High School Association informed Cahokia that the 6-3 Ferguson can begin playing Friday against Danville at the Lincoln Tournament.
"He's a complete point guard, he can run the team and doesn't get rattled," Nash said. "Good decision making. He fits in great."
Along with the Lincoln Tournament, the Comanches will compete in the Centralia Holiday Tournament and also at the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Shootout in St. Louis.