In the final weeks of last season, West Jessamine basketball coach Damon Kelley couldn’t have been more pleased with the way his team was playing. The Colts won big games to make it to the region semifinals, and all of their losses came down just a few possessions.
“They came together and played their best basketball at the end of the season,” Kelley said at the time. “I’m disappointed that we lost, but more importantly, I’m disappointed that we don’t get to play again, because I was really enjoying coaching them. I’ve had as much fun this season as I’ve ever had with any team.”
With the start of this season less than a week away, Kelley is back with the majority of last year’s squad, and they are garnering preseason buzz as one of the top schools in the 12th Region.
The only key players not returning from a year ago are Jeff Ziemann, Heath Jackson and DeShawn Eubanks — who all graduated in May.
Stepping up to lead this year’s team will be a “big four” of sorts — seniors Chase Fain and Robby Irgang and juniors Will Henderson and Daulton Peters.
“We’ve got four kids back that got a lot of experience last year and played really well for us down the stretch,” Kelley said. “Any time you have that, you have to feel good.”
Fain was banged up most of last year with a myriad of injuries from December on but shockingly only missed one game all season.
“(Fain) has got to be our leader out there emotionally. He’s probably our best all-around player,” Kelley said. Fain’s defense has really improved heading into this season, Kelley said. “He’s someone that I wouldn’t hesitate to put on the other team’s best player if needed.”
Irgang, who is just two weeks removed from football season, is expected to be a physical and dominant force on the court as well. He’s listed at 6 feet, 2 inches and 210 pounds — the second-biggest player on the roster.
“(Irgang) is doing fine,” Kelley said. “We’re being careful with him. He took about a week and a half off after football ended and, we’re just trying to get him in basketball shape right now. (A rough football season is) not negatively affecting him right now.”
Henderson missed about seven games last year following a lower leg injury in the middle of the season.
He stepped into the starting-point-guard role as a freshman and his skills developed as a sophomore.
Henderson put on some more size during the offseason, and Kelley expects more great things out of the junior.
“(Henderson) is as tough a kid as I’ve coached,” Kelley said. “He’s really gotten better offensively; he’s gotten stronger; he shot the ball well last year, but because he’s put on pounds, he’s able to take the bumps and finish shots against contact now. I wouldn’t trade him for any point guard in the 12th Region ... He’s the perfect fit for us.”
As a sophomore last year, Peters was the Colts’ leading scorer with 16 points per game, and Kelley expects Peters to be West’s primary scorer again this season.
“He’s improving in other areas of the game, and that’s what I’ve challenged him to do — become a better defender and decision maker on the floor,” Kelley said. “He’s someone who has as good a knack for scoring the basketball as any kid I’ve ever coached.”
Peters averaged more points as a sophomore than any player Kelley has ever coached in their sophomore year.
Beyond the top four, West has significantly more depth than it had a year ago. The Colts only went seven or eight players deep last year. However, the depth is inexperienced, and Kelley and his staff are still trying to figure out what everyone’s roles will be.
“December is going to be to find out what our rotation is and what’s our best way to play,” he said. “We’re going to have to get out there and play against different people to really find out what we have at this stage.”
December won’t be a cake walk either as West will play in three tournaments and face the likes of Henry Clay, Russell and district foe Mercer County.
West is still working on rotations but expects leadership from the three other seniors on the team — Justin Sanders, Grant Wells and Jack Bandy.
The sophomore class is also talented with Rashawn Jackson and Dalton Crouse.
“They should play big roles for us this year,” Kelley said.
Juniors Tanner Richards and Landon Adkins are also making the jump from junior varsity to varsity and will be counted on to play.
“I fully expect that we’re going to go eight, nine or 10 deep night in and night out, which we weren’t able to do last year,” Kelley said. “We’re just a much deeper basketball team, and that should allow us to press more and wear some people down.”
Kelley is entering his fourth year at West Jessamine. He has a record of 57-40 with the Colts and 147-149 overall.
West opens the season at home Tuesday against Fleming County. The Panthers went 16-17 last year.