Sports Sunday Correspondent
Foyil basketball coach Jason Ward has set three simple goals for his boys team this season.
First, win 20 games.
Then, win a conference championship.
The next goal elicits no hesitation, no laugh, not even a grimace.
“The big goal is the state championship,” Ward said last week.
With only three seniors departing from the team that reached the Class 2A state semifinals, it’s not even a question.
Add a heap of football-toughened players and an easier conference, and now there’s no reason not to believe.
“We had a pretty good run last year,” Ward said. “I knew we had the kids to get there.”
Things haven’t changed much after closing out the regular season on a blistering 15-6 pace, then mustering a charge into the playoffs.
There’s still Taylor Antle, the 6-3, 180-pounder fresh off of a banner year as one of the top receivers in Class A football.
His accurate shooting hand and strong legs, pinned with his new leadership role — one of three seniors — will make him “the man,” Ward says, especially in the shadow of lost starters Eric Murray and Jason Kersey.
As with most of the squad, Antle is returning from a football season that ended earlier this month, and that’s something that will keep the coaches smiling all year.
“Playing football teaches them how to compete,” Ward said. “It makes them tough.”
The Panthers have moved the Northeast 6 Conference, which is comprised of Chelsea, Salina, Ketchum, Oklahoma Union and Caney Valley.
The new alignment means less travel time, and, as it so happens, an easier schedule, Ward said.
“We had to come out and compete in every game last year. This year, we’ll have some breathers.
“We played a lot tougher schedule last year,” Ward said. “I don’t think it will hurt us any.”
In fact, the two games against Chelsea could add a dynamic that has been missing in recent seasons.
“Why wouldn’t we want a rivalry?” he asked. “It’s the closeness of the schools. The students know each other. I don’t think they necessarily like each other, but that will add to the rivalry.”
An effort to rekindle a football rivalry with Chelsea, only nine miles north on Route 66, hasn’t panned out, he said. “This is the next step. This will be good for both communities.”
As an early projection, Ward expects juniors Tyler Ridgway and Jared Ward, along with seniors Kris Mount, Austin Hendrix and Antle to round out his team’s starting five.
All but Hendrix exceed the 6-foot mark, ranging from Ward, at 6-1, 150 pounds, to Ridgway, at 6-5, 210.
Early games will likely be part of a larger developing process, Ward says.
“We’ve got good athletes all the way around,” he said. “But they’re in football shape. Obviously, basketball shape and football shape are completely different. It’ll take a while to get into basketball shape.”
Hendrix is the only starter that did not play football.
Ward, the football offensive coordinator, is beginning his third season as basketball head coach. Last year, he was the Claremore Progress Coach of the Year on the all-county basketball team.
This time around, he’s hoping the momentum of last year’s success will carry over.
So are the Panthers.