The Madison Southern coaching staff was well aware of the challenge they would face.
It certainly wouldn’t be easy — even under normal circumstances — to find a way to reload after graduating one of the biggest senior classes in school history.
“We knew we were going to have a lot of growing pains with as much turnover as we had,” Southern coach Austin Newton said.
The Eagles lost 11 upperclassmen, which includes five of the team’s top six scorers.
The process of working younger players into bigger roles should have begun this summer.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
Offseason workouts and team activities were canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions. The opening of the season was pushed back to January as well and there were no preseason games or scrimmages.
“We are starting later than we wanted to,” Newton said.
The Eagles were set to return just one starter from a team that won 16 games last season and almost knocked off Madison Central in the first round of the 44th District Tournament.
However, junior forward Nate Turner suffered a knee injury in practice recently and will miss the entire season.
Lots of players will be called on to play extended varsity minutes for the first time.
“We are wide open,” Newton said. “It’s hard to gage how guys are going to do in games. It’s going to take us some time to set some rotations.”
Turner put together a tremendous sophomore season after stepping into the line-up after Trent Moberly suffered a season-ending injury. The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 11.1 points a game (third-best on the team) and led the team in rebounding (6.2 a game).
He also hit 47 three-pointers.
“He got his opportunity and he made the most of it,” Newton said of Turner. “He’s rated as one of the best players in the region (by some publications).”
Jayden Adams didn’t get much of an opportunity to play last year.
The senior guard appeared in every game, but saw very limited minutes. He averaged 1.4 points a game, but has the ability to be a big-time offensive presence.
“We had so many older guys ahead of him,” Newton said of Adams last season. “He is really skilled. He can score in bunches. We are going to need him to score a lot — and he knows that. He is going to be very, very important for our team.”
Junior guard Walt Smith is the only other returning player on the Southern roster to play any significant varsity minutes last season.
He averaged just 2.1 points a game.
The all-state football player, though, is one of the most gifted athletes on the team and can make an impact on both ends of the court.
“Offensively, he is a great playmaker. Defensively, he is one of the best charge-takers in the state,” Newton said of Smith.
Another multi-sport standout should help Southern fill the big voids left by last year’s senior class.
Michael Bannister has returned to the team after a few years away from the sport. The baseball player has the ability and skill to run the offense for the Eagles.
“He takes really good care of the ball. He is a true point guard,” Newton said of Bannister. “We need his senior leadership.”
The Eagles also bring back a pair of juniors who played varsity last season — Grant Holbrook (six games) and Blake Simpson (16 games, 12 points) — along with sophomore Jay Rose (one game, two points).
“Blake has really taken on a leadership role,” Newton said. “He’s been vocal and a coach on the court. He’s is very active and energetic. He is a great defender.”
Hezekiah Fogle played mostly junior varsity action last season. However, the long, athletic junior is now 6-foot-4 and could be a factor for a team that doesn’t have much size.
Senior guard Trent DeVries transferred from Illinois and will bring experience and leadership to the team.
“I’m very optimistic about this group,” Newton said. “I just don’t know how quickly it’s going to happen.”
In addition to that group, the Eagles have four sophomores who are posed to push for playing time. Braden and Zach Hudson, along with Brett Erslan (6-foot-4) and Kyle Linville helped the Southern freshman team win 15-straight games last season.
“They are all very talented,” Newton said. “They just don’t have any varsity experience.”
They will likely get that experience playing against some of the top teams in the state.
“Our schedule is one of the toughest in Madison Southern history,” Newton said. “We’ve got Madison Central twice. Henry Clay. Corbin twice. Clark County. Pike County Central. West Jessamine. Trinity. It’s a brutal schedule.”
It won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly, but Newton and his staff believe that if the Eagles make progress all season — despite the growing pains — they could be much improved by postseason play.
“I feel like by the end of the year, we can be very competitive in the district and the region,” Newton said.