Cats look to run, run, run over SCA foes
The Thayer Bobcats got about as close to the Mizzou Sports Arena as they could last season without actually setting foot in Columbia.
A last-second, buzzer-beating layup by eventual champ Marionville in the state quarterfinals derailed the Bobcats' hopes of advancing to the Class 2 Final Four on the University of Missouri campus for the second time in three years.
Despite the last 10 seconds of their season, the Bobcats still put together a year for the ages, one destined to go down as one of the most successful in Thayer history.
The Bobcats ran to a 26-3 record last year and marched through the tough South Central Association with a perfect 7-0 mark before claiming the District 9 championship.
As the Cats look to follow up an outstanding 2004 campaign with more of the same for the new season, they must do so minus the services of a trio of key players in last year's hardwood battles due to graduation; Josh Wemlinger, Andrew Eckman and Aaron Henry.
While that may not be the best news concerning Thayer's chances to duplicate last year's accomplishments, Bobcat Head Coach Cliff Hawkins points out the cupboard is not exactly bare of talented hoopsters at the school.
"I think we've got an exciting group of guys this year," said Hawkins. "It's a different group, but the guys that are back have gotten a lot of playing experience the past few years." Hawkins enters his 17th year at the helm of the Bobcat program.
Seniors John Tollenaar, Layne Hawkins, Brett Ward and M.J. Clark, all starters at one time or another last year, return to give Thayer a shot of veteran, been-there, done-that experience. Juniors Jacob Simms and Eric Veatch, standouts on last year's junior varsity program, will be counted on for major minutes this year, as well.
"Those guys have been a big part of our success the past couple of years," said Hawkins. "They're all good shooters and can put the ball on the floor to create shots. They have all hit big shots for us before."
Where last year's Bobcats were based on a healthy dose of low post scoring via Wemlinger and Eckman, this year's edition will be re-tooled and re-vamped into more of an up-tempo squad, making its home on the perimeter to take advantage of outside marksmanship.
"We're going to be totally different from last year, stylewise. We're going to be a lot quicker and faster," said Hawkins. "We're going to do a lot more pressing, which we didn't do last year. I've been coaching 23 years, and they are by far the quickest group I've ever had. This should be a fun group to watch."
A pair of common denominators in the Bobcats' 26 wins a year ago were fast starts that pushed their opponents into an early hole, coupled with strong matchup defense that kept them from climbing out. Almost 80 percent of Thayer's victories last season were by 20 points or more, as the Cats took control early and refused to budge.
"This group is going to be spurty. They're going to be the kind of team that can jump on you for 10 points in a hurry, and then we may struggle some on the defensive backboards," Hawkins said. "Wemlinger and Eckman averaged seven rebounds a game for us last year, and those will be hard to replace. That's our biggest concern right now. We're just not very big and we may struggle to guard people inside."
While it may take the Cats getting some games under their belt to adjust to the full-court harassing pressure defense Hawkins wants his troops to employ, it should be business as usual on the offensive end of the court for Thayer.
"I don't think scoring will be much of a problem for us this year because our kids all shoot the ball well. Our main thing is going to be rebounding. Who's going to get the boards for us?" Hawkins said. "This group really will be different. Every year we say we're going to play at a faster tempo, but this year we have to. We need to speed the game up this year. We're known for our matchup defense, but this year we'll probably play more man-to-man just to speed things up. If we can stay out of foul trouble, we'll be OK."
Which means the rest of the SCA might feel a bit uneasy as Thayer looks to defend its crown.
"We're excited about this year," Hawkins said. "Every year I wonder if we can top what we did the year before. We get to the final four a couple of years ago, and then we get 26 wins last year. Somehow we manage to build on the success of the year before, and that's what we want to do this time, as well."