By PAUL HINES
Having a bullseye on their back isn’t a new experience for the Cardinals basketball team.
It’s something that happens to a program after a pair of 1A state final appearances in three seasons. The target gets even larger when a team enters a season as reigning state champions.
“We even addressed that last year,” Woodlawn coach Shane Witzel said. “We looked at that as a positive. That every night out, we were going to have to play our best to give ourselves a chance to win.
“When other teams are giving you their best effort, you know that you’re going to have to match that.”
The Cardinals lost a pair of starters — A.J. Webb and Christian Hollenkamp — who were integral contributors offensively and defensively. Woodlawn does return several players who could give the Cardinals a deep rotation.
“The bulk of our team’s back so we’re excited about having those players return,” Witzel said. “They gained some really valuable experience last year in the run to the state championship, and they got to play in a lot of big games against a lot of good teams.”
Any additional depth beyond the starting lineup would be a change from the past few seasons when the Cardinals operated with a short bench in most games.
“There’s only been a couple years where we’ve felt comfortable with throwing eight or nine players out there,” Witzel said. “Usually it’s six or seven.”
Three starters are back for the Cardinals to build around. Gabe Owens is the team’s leading returning scorer. The sharp shooter shouldered the point guard duties a season ago.
“We expect his production to increase some, although he will garner even more attention than he did last year,” Witzel said. “And he got a lot of attention last year from opposing teams trying to shut him down.”
Kris Harlow and Logan Isaac join Owens as returning starters. Jayson Hapeman played significant minutes last year and is back. He moved into the starting lineup near the end of the season when the Cardinals were without Isaac. Matt Kennedy and Jake Robinson also return to the team after seeing playing time last year. Kennedy will miss time at the beginning of the season after shoulder surgery. Witzel said Kennedy could be back for the second half of the season.
“Those guys gained some experience, and we expect Chase Phelps and Ty Coleman and potentially Ross Owens as a freshman playing some particularly early in the year,” Witzel said.
The Midland Trail Conference dynamics will change somewhat this season. South Central is out of the conference, and Woodlawn rival Waltonville returns. The two teams typically faced each year in the regular season, and the matchup will continue as a conference game. The Cardinals and Spartans could also play again during the conference tournament.
“I don’t think the game necessarily means more for both teams it’s a game that both teams look forward to,” Witzel said.
A pair of changes in the non-conference slate are the addition of Carmi-White County and Flora. The Cardinals also face Breese Mater Dei again this season but in a different setting. The two teams will travel to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and will play the game as a part of the SIU Shootout.
“The opportunity to play at SIU will be a good experience for our kids even though we played down there last year (in the super-sectional) this is a new group, and a new opportunity for some players,” Witzel said.
Woodlawn opens the season at the Okawville Post Turkey Tournament starting Monday, Nov. 26.