Runnin’ Panther basketball tips off Tuesday at Austin High

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Liberty Hill’s starting point guard, sophomore Carson Perkins (#5, left) makes a pass during a game against Burnet last season. On opening night, which takes place at Austin High School on Nov. 14, Perkins will be joined in the starting lineup by junior Parker McCurdy, senior Bryce Truslow, sophomore Kaleb Bannon, and senior Neil Stephens, according to Head Coach Barry Boren. (Alex Rubio File Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

This season, the Runnin’ Panthers will field a much different lineup than last year’s, and Head Coach Barry Boren is already confident that his team is more focused from the get-go, despite an inexperienced roster.

“I can tell you right now that there’s a tremendous vibe on this team,” Boren said, “but we just don’t have those leaders that have been good examples for two, three, four years in the program. We don’t have a lot of those guys around.”

In addition to their inexperience with a roster featuring only two seniors, their tallest player stands at 6’1”. Once football season is over and they get a couple more bodies, their tallest player will stand around 6’2” and their senior count will rise to three. But their size, or lack thereof, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Boren.

Boren and the Panther basketball team have long been known for their full-court press, which is even more effective with two smaller, more athletic players at the four and five positions.

“We’re really small, but we’re pretty athletic, actually,” Boren said. “Very athletic, and our press has completely added a whole other dimension.”

With bigger, slower players at those positions, a full-court press can pose some unfavorable matchup issues for the defense. With shorter, quicker players at the four and five spots, however, the Panthers’ full-court press will feature two more players with the ability to run the floor effectively and guard multiple positions, allowing them to pressure the ball more heavily in the backcourt. An important piece to that puzzle is senior forward Neil Stephens.

“Pressure on the ball is one thing, and the ability to be an interceptor on the back end, instead of a rim protector,” Boren said, “and, if Neil (Stephens) has a forte, it’s probably taking charges. He’s got it down to a science. He’s really good at it, and he’s probably in the best physical condition he’s been in his whole life, so that’s been a plus.”

With a number of seniors having graduated during the offseason and some underclassmen having to step up to the plate, the roles of seniors Bryce Truslow and Stephens have evolved quite a bit, and Boren says they’re taking it in stride.

“There’s something about being a senior,” Boren said. “I think you saw Bryce kind of assume some leadership over the summer, so what’s been funny is Neil has kind of emerged as the other leader.”

One example of Stephens’ improved leadership, according to Boren, is his willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes.

“He and I had this conversation yesterday, because we were talking about kids whining and making excuses, feeling sorry for themselves, and he really was kind of like, ‘Hey, Coach, that was me, right?’ Boren said. “When a kid kind of gets it, you’re pleased for him, you’re proud for him, because what that says is they’ve matured, so that’s a nice fulfillment, or whatever, because they’ve grown and they’ve matured.”

In addition to their responsibilities on the court, Boren expects Truslow and Stephens to assert their leadership off of it, particularly while they’re preparing for their games with no supervision.

“Until football is over, I’m going to be coaching the freshmen, which means they’re going to have to get themselves and the team ready to play,” Boren said of the expectations for his seniors. “I’m not going to be in the locker room with them. Last year, before the varsity games, you’d see those guys kind of sitting on the floor, lounging around behind the bench. We’re not doing that. We got into some bad habits last year of just kind of lounging around. It looked bad and it kind of lent itself to the way we played.”

Outside of seniors Truslow and Stephens at the three and five positions, the Panthers’ starting lineup consists of a sophomore point guard in Carson Perkins, a junior two guard in Parker McCurdy, and a sophomore at the four spot in Kaleb Bannon. Off the bench, they’ll have Chad Leath, David Basalla, and Ali Nourian, and will add Walker Baty and senior Riley LaDuque once football season is over.

With a full year of varsity experience under his belt, Boren expects his second-year starting point guard to hold his own more easily when the game gets physical.

“Physically, he’s grown,” Boren said of Perkins. “He’s about 6’0”, and I think, physically, he’s not just going to get beaten up like he did last year. I think he’s going to do a better job of being able to handle that.”

As the point guard, Perkins is expected to be more of a vocal leader, which is something he hasn’t quite grasped yet, according to Boren. Boren explained that he has a tendency to get uber-focused on one goal while putting play calling on the back burner, which isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s what gives him the potential to be one of the most potent scorers in the district at the point guard position.

“This fall, in practice, calling the plays a lot of the time was left up to Carson,” Boren said, “but he’s not in control enough to be thinking about, ‘Well, this is what we need to run.’ He’s just like a dog the way he sees a piece of meat and goes after it.”

Liberty Hill is one of the youngest teams in the district. With that youth, according to Boren, often comes questionable decision making.

“A lot of times, when you get to decision making and you’ve got guys that are young, sometimes their decisions aren’t good,” he said.

A prime example of their youth rearing its head took place throughout their fall league competition, where the Panthers led in all seven games, but gave up a lead down the stretch in five of them.

“We’re playing Lake Travis, the number 10 team in the state in 6A, and we’re beating them at the half,” Boren said. “You get to the second half and you don’t execute, you don’t make good decisions, and that youth that I was talking about kind of rears its head.”

While the Panthers have struggled a bit to hang with bigger schools during their fall league competition, Boren has seen enough from his team to have confidence that they can hold their own against the other teams in their district. The key, he said, is simply staying healthy.

“It’s just being able to survive without any kind of injuries,” Boren said, “because playing the way that we play, and we play a lot of games, because our tournament is six games in three days, then the next weekend, it’s the same thing, so playing the way we play is just hard to do.”

If they can overcome their lack of size, experience, and roster depth, Boren expects the Panthers to be among the top teams in the district based on their athleticism and ability to shoot the ball.

“I think our strengths are that we shoot the ball pretty well, we’re athletic, and we’re aggressive,” Boren said. “Our weaknesses are no size, we don’t have as much depth as we need, and we’re young.”

Boren expects Lampasas, who won the district last year, to be among the favorites once again. Taylor, he said, will likely finish near the top of the district, as well, with Salado and Leander Glenn also having a shot. Following a successful season last year, Burnet will likely struggle, considering the number of players they graduated, while Llano is expected to struggle again after going winless in district play last season.

The Panthers will play the Maroons at Austin High School in their first official game on Tuesday, Nov. 14, before playing at Gonzales on Saturday.

Sports@LHIndependent.com

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