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FISHER — Almost all of them were spectators in some way.
During the Fisher boys basketball team’s ride to a Class 1A super-sectional game at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University, Nick Thomas, Luke Harvey and Brendan Kuhns rarely broke a sweat other than pregame warmups.
Kyle Williams, Brody Farrar, Colton Eby, Gilvie Zook and Connor Zook did their part from the stands. Only Hans Carmien started, and Tate Estes provided vital minutes off the bench.
“It was a pretty good experience being able to watch those guys go so far,” said Williams, a 5-foot-9-inch junior guard who is expected to contribute significant minutes when the Bunnies open their season at 6:30 p.m. next Monday against Prairie Central in the 41st annual Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament. “It was a lot of fun cheering in the stands, but I would have liked to have been (playing). It should be pretty fun, but again, it has a lot of pressure with losing key seniors.”
Gone are four starters who made Fisher’s March memorable last season, along with senior Wade Williams, last year’s fourth-quarter hero in the Bunnies’ sectional championship win against Arthur. Williams decided not to try out this year.
Even with all the Bunnies lost from their 17-15 team that endured a 10-game losing streak that didn’t end until 1A postseason play began, fifth-year head coach Ron Ragle is prepared for the unexpected this season. Well, as prepared as the detail-oriented coach can get.
“We went through this deal my first year (in 2008) coming off the team that went to the Elite Eight trying to replace all the scoring,” Ragle said. “We struggled that year. I know I’ve learned some stuff from that. This team is a work in progress. We’ve got some good guys who can score. Guys are just going to be playing different roles than they were in last year. They’re going to have to step up and play.”
Carmien, a 6-2 senior forward, is Fisher’s most experienced player. Fisher will have to make do without the services of Estes, a 6-1 senior guard/forward, and Kuhns, a 6-1 senior forward, for the team’s first two games at GCMS. Both are suspended for violation of team rules until the Bunnies play GCMS at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 23,
in their final pool play game at the tournament. Sophomore guard Grant Pointer (5-9) is suspended for the opener against Prairie Central, but set to return to face Roanoke-Benson at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 21.
Harvey, a 5-8 senior; Thomas, a 5-11 senior; and Williams are likely to handle most of Fisher’s ball-handling responsibilities along with flustering opponents at the top of Fisher’s suffocating zone defense.
“We don’t have near the height we did last year, but we have a lot of speed,” Thomas said. “We are an abnormally fast team.”
Pointer and junior guard Brody Farrar (5-11) are other options Ragle could go with in the backcourt. Aside from Carmien, Estes and Kuhns, junior forward Colton Eby (6-0) could contribute from the wing with junior forward Gilvie Zook (6-3) and sophomore forward Connor Zook (6-4) capable of mixing it up down on the block.
“Last year I knew exactly what we had coming back,” Ragle said. “Guys are basically earning their spots right now, (but) I think you name a kid on the varsity team, and we have 11 players who can get some time.”
Just like Fisher proved last season, it’s not how teams start, it’s how they finish, especially playing in the rugged 13-team Heart of Illinois Conference. Fisher went 5-7 in the HOIC last year to finish ninth but was a win away from the state semifinals.
“I don’t know what to expect this first game,” Ragle said. “We look at it this way. The conference is tough every year. Our schedule is tough every year. We know that there’s going to probably be some losses mixed in there during the season. I don’t think we’ve ever had a goal of going undefeated. We want a schedule that has the toughest competition we can find in the area.”
Fisher will compete in the Leader Classic at St. Joseph-Ogden that runs from Dec. 13-21 but will not have a chance to win another Hayden’s Classic championship during winter break. The Bunnies aren’t in that tournament this year, instead opting to play in the GCMS Thanksgiving Tournament for the first time since 2007.
“There’s some talented schools over there,” Ragle said. “It’s a good mix that’s going to get us ready. Going into it, you’d love to win it, but we’re using it as a good, competitive practice more than anything to get ready for the start of the conference.”
Fisher did pick up a new nonconference foe (at Heritage on Jan. 29) to replace Rantoul Township High School on the schedule while keeping nonconference home games against St. Thomas More (Feb. 5) and Paxton-Buckley-Loda (Feb. 12). Ragle said he anticipates last year’s HOIC champion, Fieldcrest, to once again be strong with El Paso-Gridley, Tri-Valley and Ridgeview in the mix, and Blue Ridge as a possible surprise.
Fisher has never won three regional championships in a row. A chance to do so is a legacy Carmien and the rest of the seniors want to leave with.
“Our senior class has played basketball since fifth grade together,” Carmien said. “We’ve always been hidden behind the class above us, but we still know what it’s like to play ball with each other.”
Despite the familiarity, Estes — one never to shy away from voicing his opinion — tempered expectations going into the season.
“People expect us to get a third (regional title), but we lost a lot of key people,” he said. “We have a long way to go. We’re not there yet. We just need to be consistent throughout the year. We started off real hot (last year), and then we dropped off. Hopefully we can just stay consistent all year.”