By JUSTIN RAINS
The 2010-2011 season wasn’t exactly ground-breaking for the Westwood boys basketball team.
The Panthers finished well out of playoff contention in a very competitive Class 3A district, and were 12-18 when the season came to a close.
But, at least one good thing came out of that year, a year in which WHS coach Scott Nettles didn’t have a single senior on the roster:
His core group of players, then sophomores, learned what it was like to play at the varsity level.
“They’ve been the foundation of everything we’ve done, in terms of the success that we’ve had the last three years,” Nettles said. “Those guys, as sophomores, took some lumps. But, they always competed and then, last year, they were able to get some of the benefits of having that experience at the varsity level.”
Those core players — L.J. Hutchison, Dra Ross and Chris Thompson — are seniors now, and have led Westwood into uncharted territory this season.
Since before the calendar rolled over to 2013, the Panthers have had a home in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC) top-25 poll, and the group helped Westwood to a district title in 19-2A as well.
“It’s a great feeling to know that some of your hard work has paid off and you’re where you’re supposed to be,” Hutchison said of leading the program to new heights.”
They’ll open the playoffs at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Rusk against Troup, who finished second in District 18-2A by virtue of losing a tiebreaker coin-flip to Frankston.
The Indians and Crockett will play in the second-half of the doubleheader at Eagle Coliseum.
“It’s like any other game,” Thompson said of the area round matchup.
The trials and tribulations the trio of seniors went through in 2010-2011 have helped them in this season, a season when the Panthers began the year wondering how they’d replace the production lost with the graduation of Courtney Anderson and his 18 points per game.
But, Westwood has managed to, at first, get by and, now, thrive, even without the luxury of a true leading scorer.
On any given night, four, five or even six Panthers could score in double-figures.
On at least one instance this season, Hutchison, Ross and Thompson — along with senior move-in Josh Denby and junior J.J. Turner — have led Westwood in scoring.
“We didn’t really see it as a challenge, but as something we could fix if we’d just distribute the ball around more,” Ross said. “Now that we’ve gone along in the season, everybody is scoring. We can easily have three people in double-figures in points.
“I think it’s all just balancing itself out.”
Along the way, the Panthers won the ultra-competitive 19-2A. Now, they’ll turn their focus on winning a playoff game.
A year ago, Westwood made its postseason return after an almost two decade absence, but was bounced out in the bi-district round by Waco Connally.
This year, Hutchison and his teammates know how they don’t want 2013 to end.
“I really just use it to know what I don’t want my season to end like,” Hutchison said. “So I just try and do what I do better than what I did last year.”
Nettles said he knows these players want to do better than last year, because they’re always looking to improve.
“At any given time, they never gave me the indication that they were satisfied,” he said. “They’ve taken it a step further this year and got a district championship, and I think they’re hungry for that first playoff win.
“With this group there have been a lot of firsts, and it’s due to their commitment and character and how well they’ve prepared themselves.”
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org