All hands on board for Ranger rebuild effort

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

A few days ago, an idea came to Forest Park senior Dakota Begle. And as has become fitting with the Ranger boys basketball program, the vision became part of public domain.

Begle had a theory of how one of the Rangers’ assortment of new offensive sets could work better, and he wasn’t afraid to shield the idea to himself. He brought it up to coach Jeff Litherland. The Rangers experimented with Begle’s tweaked method during last week’s scrimmage. And presto — it worked just as Begle visualized.

Inside Buechler Arena, democracy is alive and well. The Rangers are bent on rediscovering their winning mojo, and from Litherland down to the last guy on the freshman team, the mission is a shared venture.

“I’ve asked for some of their suggestions and things they think we should change in the program. I want them to feel like it’s their program, it’s the players’ program. They’ve been open to new ideas, and I can’t preach enough (about) their work ethic,” Litherland said.

“One of our goals is to rebuild the program. Forest Park’s kind of been a program of excellence over the last decade, and I’ve asked these guys to help myself and the coaches rebuild it, and they’re up for the challenge.”

Litherland’s priority has been restoring order to a program that stammered through a 2012-13 season irrespective of just wins and losses.

He took charge of the Ranger program in mid-January following the sudden resignation of former coach Nate Hawkins, and despite splitting wins and losses over its final 10 games, Forest Park finished 8-14 finish with a first-round sectional exit to Evansville Mater Dei. It marked the first losing season since 1997-98, but what resonated more to Litherland has been his players’ response. The Rangers have scoured out the old system and rebooted everywhere, from new uniforms to a rehauled offense to a rejuvenated attitude.

“I really don’t think we could have handled it any better than what we did, both the coaches and the players,” Litherland said. “All summer, all fall, everything’s kind of been new, you’re making decisions for everything. It is difficult the first time through, but as we get back to January, we’ll have cycled through a whole year (in the new system).”

“That weight has been off our back now,” added senior Joel Weyer, a returning all-conference guard who paced the Rangers with 12.7 points per game last season. “I know that last year wasn’t the best season that we’ve had here in a while, but we really are just having a lot more fun this year than we were last year, our chemistry’s a lot better, and we’re just having fun because we know we can be good.”

Junior guard Damon Wilmes also returns to merge with Weyer and form a dangerous shooting tandem; Weyer canned 50 3-pointers last season, with Wilmes sinking 39 from long range. Litherland said Wilmes (7.4 ppg) has made upgrades to become a dribble-drive threat and not just a spot-up shooter, and the expanded palette can benefit a team seeking more oomph in the offensive after averaging 49 points per contest last season.

“We’ve really worked on improving our offensive efficiency,” Weyer said. “Last year we were more focused on stopping people, and I think this year we’re more focused on offense, because we can defend.”

Exhibit A came in the preseason scrimmage, when the Rangers blitzed Bloomfield 23-2 in the opening quarter. The official season kickoff comes Wednesday night when Crawford County visits, and expect to see changes abound, beginning on offense. With a roster of just three players taller than 6-foot-2 — and noting that the program’s next big man is in seventh grade at the moment — Litherland has installed a new offense that allows his post players to roam the perimeter. There are a pair of 6-4 forwards at the ready in seniors Begle (1.8 ppg) and Austin Egloff (1.9) along with senior forward Cody Tempel (1.1) and junior guard Ben Englert (3.4 ppg).

Junior Dacotah Deel and sophomore Dylan Buechler also lend support to the backcourt for a team that will be without 6-4 forward Ben Wendholt until probably January as the sophomore mends a broken foot from football season. Litherland expects to operate with a trim eight-man unit until then, and he added that the Rangers could incorporate some zone defense given some limitations in depth and size.

Where there may be impediments, though, there are plenty of signals to Litherland that his players are on board for making positive change.

It’s evident in the relationship between the seniors and sophomores where hierarchy isn’t a consideration, Litherland has noticed. It’s evident in the Rangers’ willingness to offer up more suggestions — including the advent of an efficiency chart, a friendly competition where players compare their worth through various in-game contributions.

The Rangers also will have a new look via a joint effort. When Litherland won a flat-screen TV at one of the team’s summer camps, he parted with it and now it’s become a fundraiser as his players are selling tickets to raffle it off. The money that’s received is going toward new gold-colored uniforms, which the Rangers plan to use as an alternate road jersey periodically.

Oh, and Forest Park is massaging one other plan — and while it wouldn’t necessarily be a first, it would be another step in what the Rangers want to be a right-hand turn toward a new era.

“I told them the first day of practice our goal, and our goal is to win sectional,” Litherland said matter-of-factly. “We’re going to have to improve every day, we’re going to have to get some luck, which every team needs a little luck. But last year’s over, and this is a new year, it’s a new beginning, and that’s our goal, to get back on top.

“The kids, they understand what our goal is, they understand the commitment they’re going to have to put forth to get there. But I think everybody in our program’s ready for that challenge.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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