By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Stockton has seen an increase in wins over each of the last three seasons, culminating in a 19-8 campaign last winter.
Entering Derald Henderson’s fourth season at the helm, the Tigers are faced with a unique challenge in replacing All-Mid-Lakes selections Clayton Hubbard and Gannon Kenney. Two players that helped reestablish Stockton Basketball under Henderson.
“I will remember that group struggling as sophomores (11-14) and growing as juniors (18-8),” said Henderson. “They were skilled and had a very good understanding of spacing and offense. We worked very hard on developing their physicality and improving defense. We set multiple school records on defense with that group and I am proud of that. We will miss their experience and skill set.”
A defense that allowed just 47 PPG last season, the lowest total in more than a decade, returns just one starter and two total lettermen from last year’s group.
However, there is a silver lining.
The lone returning starter is All-Mid-Lakes guard Drew Wheeler. The 6-foot-2 senior, who has already committed to Concordia-Nebraska to continue his basketball career, averaged 16.2 PPG, 4.4 APG, 4.2 RPG and 2.7 SPG. He also knocked down 72 3-pointers at nearly a 40% clip.
He will be one of the top players in the Ozarks this season.
“Drew has accomplished a great deal during his time at Stockton,” said Henderson. “He has broken the school record for 3pt field goals made with 228. He eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring mark and will have a chance for the overall scoring record at Stockton.
“He has always tried to make the right play. The correct play. Drew wants to share the ball. He isn’t selfish and wants his teammates to succeed. He also understands that he would not be successful without teammates throwing him passes and screening for him. Most importantly, he wants to win more than anything. I expect him to be a servant leader for this team and lead the team by example. Individual records are irrelevant without team success.”
Classmate Cole Garretson is expected to be the only other senior on the roster. Henderson expects the football standout to play a huge role this winter.
“He’s an under-sized post player,” said Henderson. “He’s very effective going to his right hand. He will need to be a strong interior defender. He can step outside and shoot the mid-range jump shot and 3. Cole will also be asked to be a great screener. He is a good football player and we think he can bring a physical dimension to our basketball team.”
Assessing new roles and having a full cast of newcomers get acclimated to the speed of the varsity game and what they can do individually to help make the team successful will be huge for Stockton this season.
Junior Tate Wheeler, Drew’s younger brother, is expected to help with point guard duties this season. He could also take on a role as defensive stopper.
Classmates DJ Bays, Taylor Winchell and Hayden Mann will all see varsity action this winter. Sophomores Layne Colvin and Tysen Taylor will also be counted on to use their length and athleticism on the perimeter and in the post respectively.
Freshman Jay Baxter is also in the hunt for varsity minutes after a strong summer.
He’s a 6-foot-1 wing that can score on the block or on the perimeter based on his matchup. He also has a high basketball IQ. Adjusting to the physicality of varsity basketball will be Baxter’s biggest hurdle this winter.
“Developing roles and niches are going to be extremely important,” said Henderson. “These players stepping into varsity will not be asked to score 17 points per game and grab 8-10 rebounds. We have to identify the select skills these players have and put them in situations to use their ability. Some players will be passers, screeners and defenders. Some player will facilitate the offense. Some players will be asked to exhaust themselves rebounding the basketball. Our staff must simplify the game and allow these inexperienced players the opportunity to use their individual skills. The players will constantly be corrected and challenged to prepare them for the upcoming season.”
Stockton will again be jockeying for position in a loaded Mid-Lakes Conference, as well as likely competing in a district that houses the top teams from the Big 8. Last season saw five of the district’s eight teams win at least 15 games. In 2016, six of the teams finished about .500 with four of them winning at least 17 games.
Competing for the MLC and district championship won’t be an easy challenge, but it is an expectation at Stockton.
While the Tigers haven’t won a district title since 2011, Henderson is hopeful this group can grow and develop into a team that’s in the hunt by late Febuary.
“The Mid Lakes is a great league,” said Henderson. “Every night you play quality competition. You have to win your home games and try to steal road games to be successful in this league. The MLC usually produces teams that will play in the playoffs.
“To compete for championships, the group will need to be in great physical shape. We will need to have players with great effort, attitude and enthusiasm. We will need to understand our roles and ways each player best contributes. Our team will need great improvement from Nov. 4-January 1. The quality of this growth will determine our ability to compete for championships as a team.”
Stockton will open the 2019-20 season on Nov. 26 at home against Warsaw.