Melissa Cardinals

Head coach: Eric Benton, 2nd year

2016-17 record: 16-14, 6-4; second place; lost to Ferris in bi-district round

Key player graduated: Taner Bigbee

Key returning players: Matt Holloway, Junior Castleberry, Brendon Lewis, Kennedy Lewis, Cameron Withers, Cole McCraw, Josh Wood.

Newcomers: BJ Lewis, Mark Fisher

First game: Tues., Nov. 28, versus Van Alstyne

First district game: Friday, Jan. 12, versus Princeton

MELISSA — Cardinal fans’ blood pressures are likely back to normal now after Melissa’s two photo-finish games to close out last season — a double-overtime win over Aubrey for the district’s second seed and the triple-OT instant-classic playoff loss to Ferris. By then, of course, Cardinal faithful were a bit used to it, having witnessed Melissa’s overtime tussle with Class 5A Sherman and an OT win at Celina. “Without really knowing for sure,” Coach Benton says, “my assumption is that’s more overtimes in one season that I had coached in my (seven) previous years a head coach put together.”

With Benton and the Cards now ready for another go at it, it’s likely that loads of tough-learning and growth were gained from those multiple squeaker-fests. “I think the biggest thing about last year is we were so young,” Benton says. “There were so many learning opportunities and so many growth opportunities throughout the year. Not only were we young, but I was brand new so they’re learning me, they’re learning our system. … Really, those two games to end the year were kind of a microcosm of that process, where we had to learn how to win a little bit. Hopefully, in the triple-overtime game we learned some really valuable lessons that will carry over and catapult us into this year. I know it definitely fueled the fire of our guys in the off-season.”

Among key losses from last year’s squad, Benton first notes forward Taner Bigbee. “He was a role guy for us, played great defensively. Anytime he came in he brought a ton of energy and athleticism off the bench. He was our biggest loss to graduation. Then [guard] Kaedric Cobbs moved away, so obviously we’ll miss him a little bit – the toughness he brought. … Hopefully, we’ve got some guys who are ready to step into those roles.”

Two junior leaders Benton welcomes back are First-Team All-District guards Matt Holloway and Junior Castleberry, noting “just the experience of those guys, having been through the fire.” Benton says he’s also expecting big things from sophomore All-District guard Brendon Lewis. “He’s having tons of success right now as the quarterback for the football team. He’s learning some leadership skills and those kinds of things that I think are going to carry over. And we’re really excited about (junior forward) Kennedy Lewis.”

A key newcomer for the Cards is junior guard BJ Lewis. “He was on our JV last year and did some great things,” Benton says. “He had a really good spring and really good summer. He’s a tenacious defender and plays hard. I think he’s really going to help.” Then, junior guard Mark Fisher moved in from Lovejoy, joining the team in August. “We’re expecting him to really contribute,” Benton says. “He’s worked hard and seems to be fitting in really well.”

Benton’s official roster won’t be completed until football players join the team after what he hopes will be a deep playoff run. “Those guys are going to play for a few extra weeks at least, I think — and I hope. … Man, it’s a great problem to have, because we’ve got so many guys over there right now doing great, great things, and all the success they’re having over there, I really believe will carry over into the gym.”

Last year’s district race neared its finish with a log jam near the top. Benton sees a similar scenario playing out again. “Celina is going to be really good with (sophomore Karson) Stastny back, the district’s Offensive Player of the Year. And they’ve added a couple of new faces that are really going to help them.” Princeton, he adds, has “tons of size and athleticism.” As for defending district-champ Anna’s loss of seven seniors, Benton says Coyotes coach Kyle Phifer “does such a good job, they’re just going to reload.” Ditto, he says, for Aubrey’s graduation hits. Bonham? “I think Bonham is a sleeping giant. They’ve got everybody back. They finished at the bottom, but they played us tough twice and had some one-possession games down the stretch with some of the other playoff teams.”

A non-district highlight for Benton this season is playing the Sanger and Highway 5 tournaments on back-to-back weekends — as both involve his freshman, JV and varsity squads. (Sanger was added when Fairfield’s tourney switched to the same weekend as Highway 5.) “I’m excited about that,” Benton says, “because I get to see our young kids play a little bit more. Also, I think it’s going to be a really good program-building experience for our guys.”

Benton adds that the Allen Tournament over Christmas will be loaded again with talented teams.

“I think we’re going to put a good product on the floor that will be fun to watch,” Benton says. “I think we have a lot of potential but we’ve got a lot of work to get done — see if we can fulfill some of that. Potential just means you haven’t done anything yet. We need to figure out a way to make sure that we are fulfilling that potential.”

“It was exciting,” Benton says of last season’s Cardiac Cards. “I know I learned a ton about our guys and about myself and some things that I need to do better. I’m excited for the opportunity to get it going.”