Melissa fans will likely need to keep a roster handy at Cards games this season – at least at first – as fourth-year head coach Eric Benton introduces new faces to fill a void left by the graduation of five key players.
The Cards are coming off an 8-2 second-place district finish with a bi-district win over 20th-ranked Dallas Pinkston. Now moved on from that fruitful squad are forward Ricky Morning, guard Matt Holloway, guard Kenneth Castleberry, Jr., guard Mark Fisher and forward Hunter Sparks. Holloway, the team’s leading scorer, and Morning, the team’s leading rebounder, were both First-Team All-District picks. Castleberry earned Second-Team All-District recognition while Fisher and Sparks received Honorable Mention nods.
“The thing that I’ll remember about that team is just what a team they were,” Benton said recently at MHS. “As coaches, we throw the ‘chemistry’ word around a lot and the ‘culture’ word around a lot. But that team truly exemplified being a team and craving others’ success.”
Benton also noted that Castleberry and Holloway had been with him on varsity for three years. “So there were a lot of things that just weren’t new last year. We were just kind of adding on and building on. You miss that a little bit when you have seniors that have been with you for multiple seasons. We’re kind of going back with this group, re-teaching some things and laying some of those foundations. … We’ve got four sophomores that are probably going to get some varsity minutes for us this year.”
Indeed, a new influx of talent is poised to join experienced Cards who return this season.
While the current roster shows four seniors, just one played for Melissa last year. That would be Ezra Monroe, the district’s 2018-19 Defensive Player of Year. Monroe led the team in steals and deflections last season - 44 and 61, respectively - while posting a team-high 119 assists and scoring 11 points per game. He’s still playing football at the moment.
“He’ll step in on Day 1,” Benton said. “We’re not worried about him. … He’s just got such a good feel for the game. If you asked some of those guys that graduated last year, that’s part of what they would tell you. A big part of the success that they had scoring was Ezra getting the ball to them in spots where he knew they liked it. That’s an underrated thing sometimes. As last year went on he proved himself to be more of a scoring threat. I think he’s going to really show some people this year that he’s a force to be reckoned with on both ends.”
Joining Monroe in the backcourt will be junior Xavier Bighaus, junior Daxx Dunnahoe and sophomore Phoenix Bramhall, all of whom saw varsity time last year.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that can all dribble, pass and shoot,” Benton said. “We don’t panic when this guy or that guy has the ball in his hands because they’re all confident offensive players. … I think [Bramhall] learned a lot last year, just being around those guys. He’s been really good for us in the fall, kind of being the bridge between last year to this year.”
Bighaus and Dunnahoe got minutes last season, mostly prior to the football players coming over, then returned to JV. “They both had great, great seasons on the JV,” Benton said. “I think what we’ve seen in the fall with those two guys is, they’re just ready. They’re not intimidated.”
Three other guards up from JV who could see playing time are Justin Maina, Hudson Czarnecki and Kaden Segleski.
The Cards also welcome move-in senior forward Jayden Anthony as well as senior forward George Lado. Lado, still in football too, moved to Melissa during last year’s hoops season and didn’t play - but practiced with the team. “We’re expecting big things from them,” Benton said.
Besides Anthony and Lado, front-runners to carry the load in and around the bucket are junior Terry Nelson, up from JV; sophomore Tavenor Watts, who played on last year’s freshman team; and junior Jaron Withers. They’ve all been rotating through the power forward and center positions and are quite interchangeable, Benton said. “Those guys are all doing a lot of really good things. They all have strengths and weakness but their skills sets are all very similar.”
Offensively, Benton noted, “We know we want to play with a ton of space. We were able to throw that thing to Ricky a little bit in the post [last year], with his back to the basket. We’ve got a couple of guys that have a chance to be that way this year too – but I think we’re going to play in a little bit more space. We’re probably not going to have a lot of guys posting up, a lot of ball screens, a lot of motion off the ball.
“And, hopefully, we’re able to replace some shooting with young guys that can shoot it a little bit. That helps create space, ball movement and player movement. … These first couple of months of the season, we’ll go to the drawing board a few times and see what sticks and what doesn’t work.”
Talking defense, Benton said, “We ran a lot of man-to-man early in the year [last year] then we started mixing in a few more zone looks. … This group might play a little bit more zone. We’ve worked on a couple of different things.”
As for potential team challenges, Benton said, “We’ve got guys that I think are ready for their moment, they just haven’t been in the moment. … It’s a fun challenge. We’re excited about it as coaches and we’re pleased with how we’ve done in the first couple of months of the off season. I think our kids are excited too. They’re hungry to be better.”
The Cards’ district slate remains unchanged from a year ago: Aubrey, Sanger, Gainesville, Anna and Celina – the defending champs. “It is an absolute battle for ten nights,” Benton said. “Between the talent and the coaches, there is no time to take a deep breath. … Every coach will tell you that their district is tough. But it’s definitely not lip service when you say that about ours.”
The non-district schedule features an overnight trip to the Lorena tournament, near Waco, where Benton was head coach prior to coming to Melissa. A couple of new opponents have also been added, including Lake Dallas who’ll visit Melissa for the season-opener on Nov. 19. The Cards travel to face Anna in the district-opener, Jan. 17.