John Kucela came into the season with a much different team than he might have expected months prior.
The challenge for the Lakeside High School boys basketball coach is even greater considering three players he expected to have, but doesn't, were 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-4.
In October, senior Vergil King collapsed and died after a pick-up basketball game at the Wilson Branch of The Family Y.
"We don't have a superstar because our superstar died," Kucela said.
The team also lost Charles Folger, who transferred to Lincoln County High School, and Mark Weidenaar, a standout junior on the court and as a quarterback whose ACL injury shortened his football season.
Thus, the Panthers have had to adjust their game plan.
"They've stepped up," Kucela said. "They're playing team ball. We don't have a superstar, but they're starting to buy into the system. That's the key."
The team ball style was on full display Friday night, as the Panthers spread out the scoring in a 60-43 home victory over Grovetown.
Chris Hall led the way for the Panthers, scoring 20 points. Lakeside got 13 points from A.J. Bennett, 10 from Jonathan Echavez, nine from Justin Jahn, and eight from Kody Belcher.
Kucela coached Grovetown's team last year before moving to Lakeside. His first matchup against his former team was a one-point defeat in the season opener.
He said Friday's game showed how far his Panthers squad has come in just seven games, as they have compiled a 5-2 record.
Grovetown (1-5) trailed by seven at the half despite going down big early.
Lakeside extended its lead late in the third quarter, then cruised to the victory.
The Panthers got the majority of their points in transition, as Grovetown's 6-foot-5 Mike Chandler gave them fits inside. He blocked a number of shots and scored eight points as part of a balanced Warriors' offense.
Denzell Garrett and Xavier Crain had nine points each for Grovetown, while Carl Tate scored eight.
The girls' game was a back-and-forth battle that featured eight lead changes in the fourth quarter. In the end, Grovetown came away with a 41-38 road victory.
The Panthers (3-4) held the lead throughout the second and third quarters, though the advantage never topped six.
The game turned into a battle between standout players: Lakeside's Tishal Turknett and Grovetown's Ebony Wells.
Turknett scored all but one of her team's 10 points in the first quarter and 23 of her team's 38 on the night. She said the roller-coaster nature of the game helped her stay in rhythm.
"It's a lot more fun," the senior said of a tightly contested game. "The competition, it makes you challenge yourself more. It makes you focus more."
Lakeside was without Carolyn Hennecken, who has seen limited time while rehabilitating her surgically repaired knee.
Wells countered Turknett's big night with a strong fourth quarter.
For the Warriors (5-1), Wells scored seven of her team-high 17 points in the final quarter and knocked down 11 of 14 free throws.
Lakeside led 38-37 with 38 seconds left, but Grovetown scored the final four points on two free throws each by Wells and Tye Sewell.
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