After years of chasing Central and the area's other top small-school basketball teams, the Carlyle Indians are about to see what it's like with a target on their back.
Area coaches voted defending Cahokia Conference-Mississippi Division champ Carlyle (23-8 last season) first in the News-Democrat Small-School rankings. The Indians also drew more respect, grabbing the No. 5 spot in the Associated Press Class 2A state poll.
Nashville coach Brad Weathers also got a surprise when the Hornets wound up tied for first in the 2A poll with Rockridge.
"It's nice recognition for your community and your program and it's fun for the fans, but we don't put a whole lot of stock in preseason polls," Weathers said. "I thought St. Joseph-Ogden with the people they have returning would be first."
Carlyle coach Andy Palmer believes his senior-led squad has the hunger to push for a long playoff run.
"A lot of kids have talked to me about it, they're tired of falling short in the postseason," said Palmer, whose team lost to Central in the 2013 regional championship. "It's nice to challenge kids when people are looking past you and everybody's talking about other teams. Now this year it's a little a different.
"Hopefully these kids will take it to heart they're being recognized for what they accomplished last year --and what they have coming back."
Carlyle has one of the area's top small-school inside forces in 6-foot-3 returning scoring leader Matt Hilmes (19 points per game). Hilmes signed with Division II Quincy University to play baseball, but figures to do plenty of damage in basketball this season.
"The biggest thing people will see is he's gotten a lot stronger," said Palmer, whose team opens the season Tuesday at home in the Kaskaskia Classic against Greenville. "He's a lot more physical and he's really improved his perimeter game. He's been able to step out and knock that three down, at least in practice."
Also returning are 6-2 senior John Becker (11.3 ppg) and seniors Logan Zachry (7.7 ppg), Alex Voss, Deven Hicks and Wanya Walker.
Zachry and Hicks will be the top outside threats to help offset the loss of graduated guards Tyson Boehne and Cody Huels.
"It's been a fun group to coach," Palmer said. "Some of these kids like Hilmes, Zachry and Becker have been up practicing with us since their freshman year. They play all the sports here and we're very fortunate right now. They're kids that know how to win and compete hard."
Palmer said improved defense and rebounding are things he'd like to see from the start.
Carlyle beat Central twice last season before losing to the Cougars in the regional.
"I didn't think we played bad, but they played tremendous," Palmer said. "It seemed like maybe they wanted it a little bit more. It's one of those lessons learned and hopefully these kids will realize that."
"These kids are all capable of putting up numbers on a given night. It's just a matter of us feeding the hot hand, playing unselfish and playing together."
Along with losing to eventual state champ Harrisburg in the sectional championship, the Nashville Hornets also lost three key seniors to graduation.
Thankfully for Weathers, the Hornets return one of the area's top big men in 6-7, 230-pound sophomore Royce Newman (11.5 ppg).
"His games gotten better, he played a lot of ball this summer not only with us but with the (Southwestern Illinois) Jets," Weathers said. "His weight is about the same, but he's stronger and more defined. His overall game is better."
Newman was a two-way starter in football at tight end and on the defensive line. There are no basketball battles he will shy away from.
"We're extremely deep at forward and center and we're thin at the guard spot," said Weathers, whose team will get a good early seaso test at the loaded Lebanon Thanksgiving Tournament. "We're going to have some people early who are out of their comfort zone and some young players being thrown into the fire."
Senior guards Keegan Anderson and Daniel Thorson both have extensive experience, while 6-3 senior forward Hunter Beetley and senior guard Kyle Jasper also project well.
Jasper is out with a knee injury suffered in football.
Along with Newman, the Hornets have impressive additional size in 6-6 senior center Clint Johannes and 6-6 junior Dylan Mueller.
Weathers also is looking at guards Walker Johnson and Chris Meyer, 6-5 junior center Hunter Cooper, junior Troy Debtke, sophomore Brady Bultman and freshman Hayden Heggemeier.