Nickerson High boys basketball coach Ryan Duft has generally exceeded expectations in nine seasons. He’ll face a similar task this season since the 7-14 Panthers were picked to finish 10th by Central Kansas League coaches after graduating all-league Quintin Crandall.
The Panthers qualified for the Class 4A state tournament in 2010 and finished with a 17-7 record after losing to Coffeyville 52-38. Under Duft, the Panthers have lost three times in the substate championship game to Belle Plaine, Andover and Colby.
Nickerson will compete in the Class 4A Pratt substate Feb. 25-March 2 with Andale, Colby, Goodland, Hugoton, Larned, Pratt and Ulysses.
Nickerson will rely on returning starters Ryan O’Toole (6-1) and Joey Stockinger (6-1).
“Ryan O’Toole can do a lot of things for us because he’s a versatile player who can score inside and out,” Duft said. “We are going to be different than last year instead of one guy averaging 20 points a game. We will score more by committee this year. That could turn in to be a positive. We have some guys that have improved since last year so it will be fun to see how it all comes together.”
Duft expects some growing pains with O’Toole and Stiverson the team’s only seniors. The Panthers lack height and experience and must rely on younger players to develop.
“With two seniors we are asking some young players to learn a lot early on,” he said. “Our only goal is to get better every day and that’s the approach we’ve always taken. We don’t have much size, but we have some tough players and I really like that about this group.
Top returners feature Jake Stiverson, Nate Hiatt and Ethan Belden. Others expected to contribute are juniors Connor Childs and Bryon Young and sophomores Jacob Mader and Ben Berridge.
Duft said an inexperienced team has worked hard, but will improve as they learn to work together.
“We are behind where we were last year, but we have a young group so that is to be expected,” he said. “ With only two seniors, we are asking some young players to learn a lot early on. Our only goal is to get better every day. We don’t have much size but we have some tough kids and I really like that about this group.”
The Panthers have played a patient, ball-control style that sometimes can be difficult to defend. But it takes time to develop Duft’s offensive system.
“The guys are working hard,” Duft said. “We practiced 11 times in our first six days, so we have been getting after it. We are a little behind where we were last year in terms of what we have in, but we have a young group so that is to be expected. We want to make sure our guys understand what we’re doing”
Defensively, Duft will like to mix it man-to-man and zone defenses to keep the offenses off balance. The Panthers’ lack of height will likely force the Panthers to play a lot of zone defense.
“They understand that every night to going to be a battle because of our lack of size,” he said. “We feel if they just keep working hard, things could come together and we could have a good season.”
Nickerson lost to Plainville 42-38 in the Russell Basketball Classic to open the season. The Panthers return home Dec. 11 against Sterling, last year’s Class 2A state champion, and play Dec. 14 at home against Hesston.