The LaGrange Panthers look to experience and depth in order to dance for a fourth straight season.
The 2016-17 Panthers come into the season looking to continue the success of recent years. They are coming off a 20-win season, while earning the school's and USA South conference's first ever at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament. The sky is the limit for this year's LC team. Over the past three seasons, the Panthers have won 55 games, two USA South Conference tournament titles, and made three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Justyn Olson, Tyler Langston, Drew Vanderbrook, and Jacob Gaetanos will look to lead the Panthers to a third conference tournament championship and first regular season title as a member of the USA South Conference.
"This is an experienced team with good chemistry. Tyler and Jacob have played together for four years, while Tyler and Drew played on the same high school team," said Coach Kendal Wallace, who is starting his sixth season. "Justyn is in his third year with us and is probably the hardest worker on the team. It would be hard for any coach or team member not to like coaching or playing with these four seniors."
Olson is coming off a very productive junior season and is looking to cement himself as a team leader to help push LaGrange to new heights. He was named to the USA South All-Conference second team last season after scoring 16.7 points per game, while shooting over 48 percent from the field. He is poised to join the elite 1,000 career point club around the mid-way mark in the season. Olson's well-rounded skill-set makes him one of the harder players in the conference to guard.
Vanderbrook is looking to increase his role for the Panthers, both defensively and offensively. As a junior he averaged 11.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Vanderbrook will be stepping into a more dynamic role this season after playing in 27 games last year, when he averaged almost 22 minutes per game.
Langston appeared in all 29 games last season, and was one of 10 players to who averaged over 10 minutes of play per game. Wallace wants improved production and leadership in the locker room from the senior guard.
Gaetanos played in 29 games last season for the Panthers, with 11 starts. He was named to the USA South Conference All Sportsmanship Team. Gaetanos' hustle play, high basketball IQ, and mental toughness will help set the tone for the Panthers during the season.
A large junior class holds crucial pieces to this year's team. Alex Bonner played in 29 games with nine starts as a sophomore, averaging over 25 minutes per game. He led the Panthers in rebounding, pulling down 5.7 per game, and was the third leading scorer at 12.5 points per game.
Nate Rosetti, Mike McCauley, Richard Howell and Duncan Parker round out the junior class, and all will be looking at increased roles coming off the bench for the Panthers. Rosetti played in eight games last season, averaging 2.3 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 6.6 minutes per game. McCauley's role will increase because of his athleticism and exceptional work ethic; helping the Panthers on the glass and in the paint. Howell provides consistent hustle play, scoring, and increased minutes when needed. Parker gives the Panthers much needed depth at the center position. He is an excellent shot blocker and has the ability to score around the rim.
A sophomore class consisting of 12 players can make a big impact on this year's season. Elijah Adedoyin, Jared Henderson, Jamison McCray and Travis Thompson all averaged seven or more minutes per game during their freshman season. They are joined by Stephen Wagner, Kawasia Pittman, Jack McCormack, Agrlin Braxton, Brandon Hopson, Darius Wonnum, Antonio McKinney, and Cody Smith, who all have an opportunity to play a role in the run for the championship this season.
This year's freshman class of six newcomers will begin their collegiate careers with the Varsity Reserve team. The Varsity Reserve program allows for freshmen to acclimate themselves to the rigors of college basketball, both on the court and in the classroom. The Varsity Reserve team has a demanding 16-game schedule against some of the area's best junior colleges and Division III junior varsity teams.
The Varsity schedule is the strongest yet during Wallace's tenure. The Panthers have non-conference games against Emory, Hartwick, and Susquehanna, who all reached the NCAA tournament last season.
"We were invited to the NCAA tournament last year because of our strength of schedule and the success through our body of work and I wanted to make sure we would still have that opportunity this season. Our program prides itself on overcoming obstacles and rising up in the face of adversity. There will be plenty of obstacles and adversity this season," Wallace stated, with a slight grin on his face.
The USA South Conference is as strong as ever, with teams such as Maryville, Piedmont, Ferrum, Averett, North Carolina Wesleyan, Covenant, Greensboro, William Peace, and Huntingdon all on the Panther's schedule. The Panthers are the pre-season favorite in the conference coach's poll, which is the first time any LC athletic team has earned the honor in the school's NCAA Division III era.
"This is a tough conference," Wallace added. "With being the preseason favorite to win it all, the target on our back just got bigger."
The Panthers tip off the season with two exhibition road games against Division I opponents Savannah State University and the University of New Orleans. The games allow for the players to get a chance to play stellar competition leading up to the season opener in the hope of preparing them for the rigorous regular season schedule.
LaGrange tips off the regular season Nov. 15 in Mariotti Gym with a non-conference game against Pensacola Christian College. The Panthers then play in an invitational at Covenant College on Nov. 18-19 against Emory & Henry and the University of Dallas. The Panthers travel to Atlanta to play Emory and Oglethorpe on Nov. 26-27, followed by the USA South conference opener at Maryville on Dec. 3.
This year's December tournament trip will be to Miami, Fla. for the D3 Miami Holiday Shootout. The Panthers will face Susquehanna and Hartwick in the tournament.
The road to a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance will be tough, but this year's team is poised for what could be a memorable run.