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Neil Capps and the Stone Memorial Panthers came out of nowhere last season to reach the state tournament with one of Capps’ least-experienced teams. After a slow start in 2021-’22, the Panthers got on a role and rode the wave to arguably one of the top seasons in Stone history.

However, as the Panthers prepare for this year, Stone Memorial is not going to be a question mark for any team. Coaches around the state know who the Panthers are and now, Stone will get everyone’s best effort each night. The Panthers have gone from the hunter to the hunted.

“To say I was pleased about last season is an understatement,” said Capps. “I don’t know if there is a word I can use to describe how happy and pleased I was with that group of young men. We lost five starters and our first sub. We had two kids that had any experience, or very limited experience.

“With five new starters, what I was selling to them was to be patient and give us until Christmas. I really felt we would turn the corner after Christmas. We had our struggles; we didn’t know how to compete. We didn’t know what to do, but we learned quickly.”

Capps said the turning point of the season came in a Christmas tournament in Maryville. The Panthers were down by 17 points, and the coach called a timeout. He asked them if this was who they were. He even allowed the players to pick out a defense they would sell out for in the final minutes of the game. Stone Memorial rallied to make up the deficit and win the game.

“This year, I have been talking to the guys about how you can’t do the same thing and expect the same result,” Capps said. “There are different dynamics now. Nobody expected us to be there last year; now you’re not going to sneak up on anybody. I told them you have a bulls-eye on your back.

“You have to work harder, do the little things better. You call on the experience you gained from last year, and it’s so valuable. We’ve been preaching about putting the work in. We were doing the hunting last year, trying to make a name for ourselves. Now they’re coming for us.”

Capps believes he has the team that is versatile enough to get its points from several different options. He also believes defensively, the Panthers should be able to stymie opposing offenses.

“We want to play uptempo and be good in transition,”  the coach said. “I have told our kids that if you want to be successful late in the season, you need to be able to defend, to get stops, and rebound the basketball on the defense. We want to run, but be a tough enough team to execute defensively and offensively in the half-court. You have to be able to adjust, and the good teams are able to do that.”

Senior Blake Holt will be a spark plug for Stone Memorial at the guard position. He will be joined in the backcourt by a host of other players, including senior Matthew Bilbrey, and sophomores Connor Bowman and Cade Capps. 

“Blake plays his role very well. He is quick, strong and is a good on-ball defender,” coach Capps said. “Part of his job will be to get the ball in the hands of our scorers. Matthew Bilbrey is an all-district, all-region and all-state tournament player for us. He is a good, sneaky defender.

“Connor Bowman, his value is he can execute any play we have from multiple positions. He does all the little things you need to do. Cade will have more responsibility this year, shouldering a lot of responsibility on both ends of the floor.”

Also expected to see some time on the floor are junior Wyatt Grothe, senior Nathan Houston, and juniors Jordan Manis and Preston Mayberry.

“This backcourt will have to score and defend,” coach Capps said. “That set of guards will be called to do a lot of different things  and has a heavy load in front of it. We expect them to score a lot of points and create a lot of havoc on the perimeter.”

Junior Brady Lane figures to be the dominant figure under the basket for the Panthers. He will get help from fellow junior Jayden Eldridge, and Bowman is versatile enough to also see time in the post when needed.

Other players expecting to see time on the floor include sophomore Spencer Bowman, sophomore Braydon Webb, junior Zaiden Rice and sophomore Tyler Mutchler

“I foresee us playing possibly nine or 10, but that circle gets smaller in the postseason,” coach Capps said. “You don’t want to burn your first guys out by playing them 32 minutes in December. In the postseason, that’s when you want the guys with the ability to score on the floor more.”

The coach said, as usual, the Panthers are facing a difficult schedule, posing several obstacles for Stone seeking a return trip to the state tournament. However, not only are there great players around the area, but also great coaches.

“We have some really fantastic coaches in our district,” coach Capps said. “They’ve been around a long time, and they’re going to get after you. These guys keep you up at night looking for an advantage. If you’re fortunate enough to get to the state tournament, you earned your way there.”

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