O’Fallon has been loaded with experience and size in recent years. It’s quite different this season for the Panthers.
Coach Rick Gibson, in his 11th season, has just two returning players and a roster primarily comprised of guards.
“We’re starting over, for sure,” said Gibson, whose team last season was 17-11 overall and 9-5 in the Southwestern Conference. “We had six seniors last year that we graduated, and they were six of our top eight kids.
“Chance Armstrong is a name most people will recognize. This will be his third year of starting for us. We’ve also got Alex Orr, who played quite a bit last year as a sophomore. Outside of that, probably no one recognizes any of the names on (the roster). People will need a program with this team.”
Gibson hopes Armstrong, a 6-4 senior, and Orr, a 5-11 junior, can bolster an offense that will sorely miss the graduated Donovan Franklin and Darien McClain.
Franklin, who signed with Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla., averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds and finished as the Panthers’ career scoring leader with 1,616 points. McClain averaged 9.6 points with a team-high 50 3-pointers.
However, Armstrong, who averaged 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds last season, missed the entire summer and early fall after suffering a a dislocated ankle, and Orr is expected to miss at least two weeks as he recovers from offseason surgery to repair a torn Achilles’ tendon. Orr averaged 3.6 points, shot 87 percent from the free-throw line and had 37 steals.
“The last couple of years, (Armstrong) has been a third or fourth option behind Darien and Donovan and some other kids,” Gibson said. “This year, he knows he’s kind of the guy. But he’s also going to be the guy that gets the other team’s No. 1 defender, gets their concentration. The last couple of years, that wasn’t the case. The defense he has on him is going to be a lot better.
“But I think, offensively, he’s gotten a lot better. Last year, he did a lot of things for us. He rebounded and he’s a good defender. We’re going to count on more rebounds out of him and we’re going to need him to defend even harder and stay out of foul trouble. And obviously, we’re going to need him to score a lot more. Offense is going to have to run through him.”
O’Fallon had hoped to return senior Bradley Harrison, who averaged four points last season. But Harrison, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale baseball recruit, elected not to play.
“That was a big loss for us,” Gibson said. “He decided this year he just wanted to do nothing but baseball. We hated to see it because he’s a good player. He would have helped us out a lot. But we understand baseball is his thing. We’ve got to move on without him.”
O’Fallon, which lost 73-46 to Carbondale in its season opener Monday, will also rely on inexperienced hands like juniors Patrick Berry and Chris Eichholz and sophomores Tabari Dunlap and Jalen Hodge.
The 5-11 Eichholz will start at point guard; the 5-10 Dunlap and the 6-1 Hodge will start on the wings. Eichholz played in three games last season, but did not score at the varsity level.
“We’ve got two sophomores and a junior, all with no varsity experience, at our three guard positions,” said Gibson, who will start another inexperienced player, Berry, at forward with Armstrong. The 6-3 Berry played in three games last season and scored two points.
“He’s a tougher, stronger kid with a football mentality who’s going to rebound well for us,” Gibson said. “He can score around the paint for us and he defends hard.”
Adding depth are 5-11 junior Deion Norfleet, 6-0 junior Ryan Fulton, 6-4 junior Jarvis Smith and 6-2 sophomore Burke Watts. Norfleet transferred from MacArthur High in Decatur; Fulton transferred from CBC High in St. Louis.
“Those two kids are backup guards now who have a great chance to make that jump and become starters,” Gibson said of Norfleet and Fulton. “They’re pushing every day. Those two are going to give us added depth at the guard spot. ... We’re really high on a lot of our underclassmen. We think we have some good underclassmen.”
Rebounding could be an issue for O’Fallon, which has one of its smallest teams in years.
“We tell the kids, ‘You don’t have to be big to rebound. You’ve just got to get physical and check kids off,’” Gibson said. “We’re going to have to do that. Chance, we know, is going to rebound. But we can’t sit around and rely on him to do it. Other kids are going to have to do it.
“We’ve had size (in the past). This year, we took the team picture and I’ve got three coaches bigger than anyone in the picture.”
But even if his team can’t grow, Gibson it to improve as the season matures.
“Especially early in the season, we’re not that wrapped up in wins and losses,” he said. “It’s about getting consistent, getting better and just competing and playing hard every single day.”