Wildcats look to maintain high level in 2022-23

There’s an elephant in the Franklin County gymnasium.

Figuratively speaking.

To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Chad Cox is not walking through those doors this winter.

Although he’s been redshirted at IU East, the Wildcats’ all-time scoring leader took that record with him when he graduated last spring.

Cox led a group that produced a record-breaking season for team marks as well, posting 18 wins and nearly capturing the program’s first-ever sectional title.

“It’s one thing we’ve really been harping on since June, you know, enjoy that season and what we accomplished – obviously it was bittersweet how it ended – but we have guys who came in in June and looked around and saw those guys weren’t there,” said second-year coach Mark Foster.

“Not that they’ve forgotten those guys, but they had to learn real quick when we were playing June games that hey, more people are going to have to step up,” he added. “Not one person’s gonna’ replace probably the best player at Franklin County … but a group can, and it’s got to be a collective thing where all of them are kind of on the same page.”

And not that the cupboard is bare, either.

Though, as assistant Derek Stang recently pointed out to the squad, the 2021-22 unit averaged around 55 points per game and only 18 of those are returning.

Brant Ertel, in his fourth year as shooting guard, provided 11.5 of those as a junior. He also sank 41 3-pointers (38%), grabbed 88 boards, dished out 70 assists and stole the rock 34 times.

“(Opponents) were all playing for Chad last year, right?” Foster began. “And he got his because he’s really good. Well, this year Brant’s going to get his because he’s a really good basketball player. But we’ve got to find a group of guys who are going to expand their (offensive) roles, for sure.”

Jace Lee will certainly fill a key role, the senior starting every game a year ago. He contributed 4.5 ppg, shooting 71% from the field. Lee also secured 53 rebounds, adding 27 assists, 13 steals and 8 blocks.

Junior Eli Butt – lone member from Class of 2024 – provided the occasional boost on offense (2.4 ppg, 14 3s, 45% from long range) as a sophomore, ringing some important jumpers throughout the season. Senior Tanner Weartz (6’3”) gives FC some length inside and is the only other returnee logging meaningful minutes in the previous campaign, though he’s a little banged up to begin the year.

Other seniors are Brady Morehead and Landen Wuestefeld; joining them are classmates Hayden Barrett and Xander Rodriguez, a pair of wildcards up Foster’s sleeve.

“Both are new to the program,” said the coach. “Hayden was with us in June and Xander started in August. They’ve brought different sparks but they’re also a little behind the learning curve of what we want done.”

Rodriguez is better known from the FC baseball diamond, but his athleticism will play on the hardwood as well.

“He can guard, go up and down the floor, dribble … we’ve just got to kind of cage him a bit because he can get going really quick,” said Foster.

The coach is also anticipatory of a trio of sophomores – Quinn Gillman, Landon Johnson and Nick Vanoven (father Nick coaches the FC freshmen).

“Early on, we’re going to play with a bigger rotation – 9 or 10 – than we probably will by late February,” said Foster. “I want to give numerous kids ample opportunities to show what they can do.”

Defensively, the coach said it will largely “boil down to what we do well.”

“Last year we guarded man-to-man 95% of the time,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s going to be that high this year. We’ll see what this team can do, we’ll try to throw different looks at people.”

The first game action following a busy summer – FC played about 16 games in June at sites like Whiteland, East Central and Greenfield, to go with lifting and practice – is Thursday at University High School (Carmel) for an official scrimmage. The season gets underway early this year with a trip to Hagerstown Tuesday; normally, the Tiger matchup is late in the season.

“We moved it up so both of us could start with a non-conference opponent,” noted Foster.

Eastern Indiana Athletic Conference action starts Nov. 26 at South Dearborn, the Knights being the only league school to debut a coach this year – Patrick Cosgrove. The home opener Nov. 30 is a rematch of the sectional final against Lawrenceburg.

The Tigers, along with Connersville and Greensburg, appear to have the best chance at the EIAC title. CHS’ last regular season loss in conference came at the hands of FC in February of 2020. Foster thinks Batesville could surprise with a solid 2-3 zone and 6-5 Cole Pride in the middle of it. East Central may not be getting its football players in uniform until December.

FC is defending champ of the Wildcats’ holiday tourney, bringing the same three opponents back to Brookville on Dec. 22. Foster places Hamilton Heights in the favorite position.

Sectional moves to Greensburg in late February-early March. This is essentially an EIAC tourney without EC’s Trojans.

One other assistant not previously mentioned is Dylan Huber, who heads up the junior varsity. “We’re really trying to create a program here that is a program, just not year-to-year,” summarized Foster. “Of course, you graduate and lose players, but we do have a lot of young guys working their tails off so we’re excited about that.”

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