Talented? Yes. Experienced? Yes. Driven? Yes. Proven? Not yet.
Such is the status of the Perry boys basketball team, who were a 73-70 overtime loss in the regional finals away from the first state appearance for a Bluejay team since 2002.
Gone from an 18-6 team that won the Raccoon River Conference title outright at 11-3 are six seniors, none of whom will be easily replaced.
The athleticism of guard Will Whiton, who averaged 12.6 points per game and who made a team-best 92 steals (second in 3A) while setting the school assists mark with 156, will definitely be missed. Also gone is center Scott James and his 170 rebounds and 40 blocks, with Zach Roberts, Jacob Clark, Nic Wilhelmi and Jack Brosnahan also having graduated. Missing as well will be senior guard Blake Lansing (10.6 ppg, team-high 40 3-pointers) who opted not to come out this season.
“All those guys who were seniors understood the role they had to play to make us successful and they did it very unselfishly,” Perry head coach Ned Menke said. “We will need our guys this year to play with the same kind of attitude — one or two guys are not going to be enough to get us where we want to go — it is going to take a lot more than that.”
The returners boast talent throughout the lineup, but unless it plays in harmony, Perry will sing a sour note again.
“Last year when we struggled it is because only one guy, maybe two, were on their game,” Menke said. “We also had the element of surprise, but this year no one is going to take us lightly.
“The conference will be better, top-to-bottom, than last year, so a one-or-two guy night is not going to carry us,” he added. “We are going to have to play as a team, and if we do, then all those parts can work together and we could give some people fits.”
One huge piece returning for Perry is guard Shammond Ivory, who lit up the opposition at a 21-point per game clip last year and earned INA Second Team All-State honors. Ivory had 84 assists, grabbed 87 rebounds and made 69 steals (fifth in 3A) while knocking down 31 shots beyond the arc. He shot 48.2 percent from the floor and was second in 3A on attempted free throws (185) and third in foul shots made with 118 (64 percent).
Ivory poured in 505 total points last year, second-best in 3A. His 1,197 career points leaves him just 107 shy of tying Mark Einck’s current school mark of 1,304.
“It will be critical for us to have Shammond stay out of foul trouble,” Menke said. “He plays a very physical style and we don’t want to limit that, but we need him on the floor. When he is on, he is the kind of dynamic player that can take over a game and really elevate his teammates.”
Height will not be an issue, as 6-5 senior Ryan Rathje and 6-4 junior Kyle Nevitt both return for the Jays.
Rathje prefers to play on the perimeter and overcame a disastrous first half of the season shooting the ball to finish with 32 treys (on 32.7 percent shooting) while posting 5.7 ppg.
Left-hander Nevitt is likely to be asked to play inside more this year. He scored at an 8-9 ppg clip and hit 23 3-pointers but had several games down the stretch where his length and leaping ability near the basket resulted in several high-point outputs.
Senior guard Alex Long will feature into the mix, as will sophomore Rashon Ivory, senior Solomon Pierce and junior Janier Puente.
Also donning varsity jerseys will be Sean Riley, Trey Dantzler, Connor Nielsen, Taviar Lucas, J.R. McCord, Grank Eklund and Dane McCarty.
“All these guys know they could be called upon at any time,” Menke said. “We regularly played eight or nine deep and sometimes more last year and I expect we will again this year. I cannot stress enough how important it is for each guy to know what is expected of him and to just focus on that and not worry about anything else. If we can get 7-8-9 guys fulfilling their roles we are going to win more than our share of games.”
Menke said the attack would look familiar to Bluejay fans: “We have the personnel to run, shoot and get up-and-down the court and that is what we will try to do.”
“I think we might end up being a little better of a shooting team than we were last year and I think our rebounding should be better, too,” he added. “Defensively we might try to play a little more lock-down man-to-man, which has not been what we are best at, but which I think we can improve upon.”
Perry will open their season Dec. 1 with a boy-girls twinset at Greene County, with a visit from Carlisle Dec. 4 beginning the defense of their Raccoon River Conference crown.
If there were one are Menke would like to see improved in would be — somewhat surprisingly — in confidence.
“We had trouble at times last year when things went wrong, that we kind of went into a bit of a funk,” Menke said. “It definitely got better as the year went along, and I hope we can pick up where we left off.”
If they do, the Bluejays might fly into rarefied air early in March.