GARDNER – The senior class at Gardner-South Wilmington High School has watched the boys basketball program bounce between some high highs and some low lows.
When the current seniors were freshmen, the varsity Panthers were 19-9 overall. Per records on the IHSA website, it was their lowest single-season loss total since 1980-81. GSW fell to 9-15 in 2011-12, when the current seniors were sophomores, and endured a 2-24 season – the worst of all those listed on its IHSA page – in 2012-13.
Winning was not exactly foreign to the four boys basketball seniors on the current team. They were at least aware of the varsity’s success during their first year of high school, even if they did not directly contribute to it. But the reality that, with their 52-35 victory Monday over Morgan Park Academy, the Panthers clinched a winning season just a year removed from hitting the two-win bottom was a bit much to absorb for some.
“It feels great. Last year, it’s just everyone didn’t wanna play anymore, but now it feels great being over .500,” senior Tristan Noonan said. “Anything can happen. My freshman year, my [junior varsity] team went 17-5, and that’s the team that went 2-24.”
The other three seniors on the team this winter, in addition to Noonan, are Nathan Ruffatti, Jeremy Kunz and Danny Houseman. The personnel has changed some for the Panthers. Six of their 13 players were not on the 2012-13 varsity roster, including point guard Scott Horrie, a sophomore, and another key rotation guard, freshman Austin Kavanaugh. The most obvious difference between this year’s team and last is its coach; Chris Gibson replaced Justin Stevenson during the offseason.
Gibson insists he did not enter the season with a number of expected victories in mind. He did expect improvement, though not necessarily as much as has occurred.
“I think I would probably not be telling the truth if I said that I thought we would get to 13,” Gibson said. “It’s a great accomplishment for our team. I think that the kids really believe in the system and they believe that hard work will get them to good places.”
One element of the Panthers’ success, their balance, was on display Monday. Junior Kyle Robison led them with 12 points, and three others (Horrie, junior Blake Marks and Noonan) each chipped in 10.
To Robison, the Panthers’ turnaround has as much to do with the way their parts work together as it does with the talent level of those parts.
“This year, we played a lot of good team ball. Our chemistry got better. We’re playing really well together,” Robison said. “Emotionally, [the 2012-13 season] was bad. We hated losing. Sometimes like the team didn’t give as much as it did this year.”
Finishing more than a single game above .500 will be difficult for the Panthers. Currently 13-11, they will take on the regional’s top seed, St. Anne, in a semifinal game tonight. St. Anne defeated GSW twice, 62-46 and 67-41, during its 12-0 run through the River Valley Conference this season.
“We have to do what we did here [Monday], except at a much, much higher level,” Gibson said. “We talked about stopping Morgan Park Academy’s penetration. I thought at times we didn’t do a great job, but they missed shots. St. Anne will not miss those shots on Wednesday night, so we have to do a better job of stopping the penetration.”