MOUNT WASHINGTON - The most anticipated basketball season in Bullitt County history will get started tonight when the Bullitt East Chargers take the court at home against Lexington Lafayette.
Ranked as the number two team in the state behind Ballard, and just ahead of defending state champion Trinity, the Chargers have their eye on a number of prizes, but this group does not shy away from mentioning that winning the final game of the season is not just a dream, but an expectation.
Just call it unfinished business. The Chargers have won back-to-back Sixth Region titles. Two years ago they carried that run to the semi-finals of the state tournament where they suffered a frustrating loss to Rowan County. Last year, a bad draw forced them to play Trinity in the first round in Lexington and they were sent home early after a poor outing.
Now, this year's team returns the nucleus of those two previous squads. Senior Derek Willis, a 6-9 do anything wing player who has signed with the University of Kentucky and 6-5 senior Rusty Troutman, who has signed with Bellarmine, will join with fellow senior Trey Rakes to provide a strong foundation.
Bullitt East head coach Troy Barr is not going to dampen any expectations in Bullitt County for this season.
"That is obviously the ultimate goal," he said of getting the big trophy on the floor of Rupp Arena on March 10, 2013. "We want to be a better team then than we are now. If we do that everything else will take care of itself."
While the seniors are the reason that there is so much hype surrounding the red and gold, Barr feels that it will be the play and the push from a number of younger players that will ultimately create the path to the ultimate goal.
"I think we can be a lot better," Barr said. "We have young kids to help us. We have to have the seniors get better. This team will be great based on the underclassmen developing."
The Chargers appeared to be the equal of any team in the state a month into last season, but then 6-7 Elliott Young was sidelined with a stress fracture in his back. He did not return. In fact, he did not play basketball again until early in the summer, but he is ready to go now.
"He is 100 percent," Barr said of Young. "He is as healthy as anyone on the team. He had 16 in the scrimmage last night (against Central) and shot it extremely well. I have no concerns there."
Barr did point out that both Willis and Rakes have been battling nagging ankle injuries during the pre-season, but both played well against Central.
"Both came back, but neither is 100 percent," Barr said. "It might be a few weeks or a month until they are 100 percent."
Is there any pressure on this team not only from the local expectations, but the statewide attention?
"No. None," Barr said. "It was expected (the number two state ranking by the state's coaches). We expected to be higher."
Even with all the talent in Mount Washington this season, Barr doesn't feel that he will have a set line-up. There are just too many strong combinations possible.
"We have more experience and more skilled players at the practices," Barr said of this team. "This is no real starting line-up. It will change based on the opposition.
"We'll utilize the kids we have to go against our opponents' weaknesses," the coach added. "Our top subs could be starters on any given night."
While Barr might say that, he also admits that an injury would be the only thing that would keep Willis, Troutman and Rakes out of the starting line-up any night this season.
"It would be hard to pull any of those three out," the veteran coach said with a smile. "Trey and Rusty have started every game since they were freshmen and Derek has started every game since he got here as a sophomore (when he transferred from Male).
"But those last two positions there are five or six guys battling," Barr pointed out.
Because he is the first Kentucky kid to sign with the Wildcats under head coach John Calapari, Willis will never escape the public eye...or the eye of any opponent.
"He is much better from the standpoint of being aggressive and his strength and his overall game," Barr pointed out. "He was ranked the best player in the state at the beginning and end of last season. Nothing has changed. Everything we do will go through him."
While Willis gets the attention, Troutman is the team's heart and soul. The senior forward never seems to take a play off.
"He is shooting better than I have ever seen him," Barr said of news that has to frighten every other team in the state. "He rebounds extremely well. He can play point guard for us if we need that."
Running the show for the Chargers once again will be Rakes. Three times in less than a year he has hit game-winning shots that fell as the buzzer sounded. It was his 40-footer that beat Pleasure Ridge Park in the Sixth Region final last season that was a highlight on ESPN for a week.
"He makes the plays," Barr said of the point guard. "He'll make more plays."
Barr thinks that 11 players will play key minutes for the Chargers this season.
Young is certainly a candidate to start up front and then that would mean that senior Chris Embry, 6-3 junior Ezra Troutman and 6-7 sophomore Tyler Bacon would be coming off the bench. Any of those could also start if Rusty Troutman moves to the backcourt.
Depth at guard will come from senior Derek Jones as well as junior Rhett Troutman. Another guard who could make a statement is sophomore Hunter Noffsinger, a transfer from Muhlenberg County.
The 11th candidate for playing time is freshman Tyler Sharpe. He dressed with the varsity for the post-season a year ago.
"Tyler is our designated shooter," Barr said. "He will be in the game for one reason and that is to shoot the ball."
Barr has put together a schedule to challenge his talented team. In the first week alone the Chargers will play three teams ranked among the top-20 in the state this season. Bullitt East is also in the King of the Bluegrass Tournament at Fairdale starting on Dec. 20. That event includes Ballard and Trinity and the Chargers could also face Pleasure Ridge Park in the second round after opening against Bowling Green.
After Christmas, the team will head to Dallas, Texas for a tournament. Then in the middle of January (instead of the Louisville Invitational Tournament), the team will play in Springfield, Missouri where they will face the number one team in the country, Montverde, Florida.
Let the games begin.