EAST LIVERPOOL - The standard has been set.
The East Liverpool basketball team gave fans plenty to cheer about last season.
The Potters, who started the year with 11 straight wins, finished at 19-4 advancing to the district finals with two of the four losses coming against a St. Clairsville team that ended East Liverpool's season en route to the state semifinals.
"We said all year that we wanted to get the pride back in our community and with the players," East Liverpool coach Nate Conley said. "It brought the excitement back. We had 40 kids try out this year and we only had about 20 my first year. That shows you what winning can do for a program."
Now, the question is whether the Potters can carry the momentum from last season into the 2012-13 campaign. According to Conley, the foundation for future success has already been laid.
"We set the standard last year," he said. "We gave them the responsibility of how hard they wanted to work. We told them that you can practice like an average team or practice like a state-ranked team and they ran with it. With the work ethic the kids brought, the games ended up being easy because of all the hard work that had already been put in."
While the Potters made great strides last season, much of the credit rests with players who have now graduated. In fact, East Liverpool will be without the services of its top six scorers from last year, including all-state performer Marky Thompkins (15.5 ppg) as well as Mow Mow Thompson (15.3), Christian Kyle (13.7) and Brian Beverly (12.9).
"We have zero kids with varsity experience," Conley said of his squad. "In the first game, I have no idea what to expect. But, there's no rebuilding in high school basketball. We can't have the mindset of being young and letting mistakes be acceptable."
Conley said his team will be a work in progress. He stressed that it will take time for this group of players to develop into one cohesive unit.
"Team chemistry is probably the hardest part of having all new starters," Conley said. "They just haven't played together enough. We're still trying to identify roles and see where everyone fits. These guys are close off the court, but they still have some learning to do on the court."
The Potters' top returner is junior Hayden Cunningham. Last season, Cunningham netted 35 varsity points on the season, and had a breakout game against St. Clairsville in the OVAC title game where he came off the bench to score 14 points.
"He's been working a lot with (assistant coach) Josh Reed," Conley said of Cunningham. "As a two-guard, we want him to be a little selfish at times and want to score. But, while we want him to get his points, he has to learn to make the people around him better. Last year, he was pretty much just a jump shooter. Now, he's putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket."
One area where the Potters are sure to be improved from last season is in the post. For the first time in his three seasons with the program, East Liverpool has a rotation of big men to sure up the area around the basket.
"We've got three good big men and last year we didn't really have any," Conley said of Aaron Long, Austin Emmerling and Derek Thompson. "Defensively, we should be a lot better immediately. We've got an inside presence. We'll be able to run a lot more sets offensively. There's not a lot of high school teams around with three kids going 6-foot-4."
The Potters, who will run a 7- or 8-man rotation, will be directed by a new face. Junior D.J. Austin will take over the point guard duties. Also in the rotation will be Kade Reynolds and Owen Crawford.
"He's a true point guard," Conley said of Austin. "He's very good at penetrating and he's put in a ton of work. He might be the biggest upside I've seen so far."
Conley - who will be assisted by Scott Rogers, Eric Rogers and Josh Reed - said he has no problem with teams who may overlook the Potters this year due to the amount of turnover.
"We understand a lot of teams will talk about us," Conley said. "Right from the gun, we start with teams with a bunch of guys back. Wellsville has all their guys back, same with Zanesville and Carrollton. Then we play some of the WPIAL powerhouses. If teams underestimate us, that's fine. We're not rebuilding. Our motto is that we reloaded. It's their chance now to pick up where we left off."