The O’Fallon Township High School boys basketball team opens its 2016-17 season with the unenviable task of squaring off against defending state champion Belleville’s Althoff Catholic High School in the first round of the Highland Battling Bulldog Thanksgiving tournament on Monday, Nov. 21. Tourney games against Waterloo, Carbondale and Highland follow in what amounts to a baptism under fire for the Panthers and their first-year head coach Brian Muniz.
The exit of Rick Gibson as the OTHS varsity coach opened the door for Muniz, who will be starting his 11th season as a member of the Panther basketball staff, the last three serving as the junior varsity coach. O’Fallon finished 8-20 last winter, playing virtually all underclassmen. Muniz is hopeful that with a full varsity season under their belts the Panthers will be more competitive in the fierce Southwestern Conference.
“The SWC will actually be stronger than it has been in a while,” said the OTHS coach, whose brother Joe begins his 13th year heading the Belleville West program. “At least four of the conference schools will feature players who are being heavily recruited by Division I universities, so it is our task to find a way to compete successfully.”
Muniz knows that success for his young and under-sized squad will be predicated on the Panthers’ ability to set the tempo against physically bigger and more experienced opponents.
“We are not going to set any parameters on what we can or cannot do,” Muniz said. “We will have to play a physical, scrappy and tough brand of basketball to compete successfully. Realistically, we will look for improvement moving forward and hope to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
In order to accomplish their goals on the hardwood, the Panthers will feature a guard-oriented offense and exert full court pressure to speed up the tempo of the game. Senior guards and returning starters Alex Orr and Ryan Fulton will play major roles in establishing the pace of the game necessary for O’Fallon to realize success. Also returning from last year’s starting line-up is center Jarvus Smith (6’3”) and junior Jalen Hodge, who was an important part of the OTHS attack as a sophomore last winter. Other potential starters include Burke Watts and Tabari Dunlap.
“We have nine guys who could see significant minutes,” Muniz said. “The trio of Orr, Fulton and Hodge will need to spearhead our offense. Defensively, we will pressure either in a full court man-to-man or in a trapping zone to compensate for our lack of height. It’s no secret that we will be a guard-oriented team with an emphasis on playing fast and furious.”
After the four-game stint in the Highland tourney, the Panthers open Southwestern Conference action with Collinsville on Dec. 3 followed by their first home game on Dec. 6 against the Alton Redbirds. The OTHS hoopsters will again participate in the Centralia Holiday tournament and travel across the river to play in the Kirkwood Tourney scheduled for January 10-13. Additional significant dates on the Panthers’ cage schedule include the Bank of O’Fallon Shootout on Saturday, Feb. 4 and the annual Walk of Fame contest – this year on Friday, Feb. 10 when O’Fallon hosts Belleville East.