Aces pursuit of fifth consecutive Region Title kicks off in this weekend's Capital Classic

Photo via Christy McPherson -- Junior Kaleb Applebey attacks the basket in Monday's Hilltop Hysteria scrimmage. Applebey looks the part of a top two scorer for the Aces this season.

MOUNT CARMEL -- Under the direction of Tyler Buss, Mount Carmel has become a boys basketball perennial power in Southern Illinois.

Having earned four Region crowns and a state title game appearance in the last four years, winning has become the standard for Mount Carmel basketball.

That certainly won't sway this year, albeit the Aces will face arguably their toughest test. They're tasked with the unenviable task of replacing a pair of 1,000 point scorers in Austin Rager and Bret Doan, as well as several other key departures such as Luke Gould.

To Buss however, this isn't unfamiliar territory. He's excelled in replacing high-level talents such as Justin Carpenter, Jackson Marcotte, Blake Golden, Brayden Stipp and others.

"We lost Brayden Stipp and Jackson Marcotte, Blake Golden and Justin Carpenter the year before that, so I think we've been able to keep plugging guys in and working a system around what we got," Buss said. "The talent cupboard is definitely not bare, we're excited about the talent we have, now it's just about filling different roles and seeing where the pieces fit together."

KEY RETURNERS

The cupboard Buss referenced to includes a couple of key underclassmen returners, juniors Kaleb Applebey and Beau Stipp, each of whom figure to be Mount Carmel's go to scorers this season.

Applebey, a 6-foot-6 physical post presence for the Aces, started out the 2018-19 season with an ankle injury that sidelined him for five games. Now that he's beginning a season with a fresh slate, he's excited for what he might be able to do.

Stipp, a 6-foot floor general for the Aces, is an active defender who's often bothersome in passing lanes and is a great slasher. He's an aggressive transition attacker and is a good decision maker at point guard for the Aces.

"We know what we're going to get out of Beau, we know what we're going to get out of Kaleb," Buss spoke of his two juniors. "Two very important pieces and they understand that, they know they're going to have to stay out of foul trouble, that they're going to have to be making good decisions and things like that. Those two, if you walk into the gym and have a great point guard and a great post player, you're off to a good start."

They know they'll have to assert themselves more with Rager and Doan now gone, a pair of scorers who represented the bulk of the 2018-19 Aces' scoring. Applebey said they're ready to step up and accept such a challenge.

"I'm going to have to play a big part in everything, I'm going to have to play my butt off in every part of the game because I know I probably won't be back," Applebey said. "Having those guys gone like Rager, he was our go to scorer late in the game so that's a big time loss. That just puts more on me, Beau, Kyle, Aden, one of us has to step up and take that role. Having Bret [Doan] gone, that 3-point shooter, we're just going to have to step up. [Luke] Gould, that lockdown defender, that was a big one, we're going to have [several] of those this year."

Applebey said he's always dreamt of being 'the guy' a team goes to late in the game. If he's the one they elect to feed the rock to in clutch situations, it's a duty he won't take lightly. He said he's worked on his body in weight room to improve his strength in the post in particular.

"I hope I'm the guy," Applebey said. "That's the stuff you always dream about, the last-second shot for the win. I've always wanted to have that spot and now that I can have it, it's going to be big. Just seeing what kind of player I'm going to be. Hopefully I step up to the challenge, help my team and we get the [win]."

Outside of Applebey and Stipp, senior Aden Gill stands out as someone who could handle the ball a considerable amount and assume a larger scoring role as well. With Stipp sidelined for much of the summer with an injury, Gill assumed the floor general duties for the Aces and thrived. He could receive similar responsibilities if Stipp were to find himself in foul trouble, or when Stipp's resting.

Buss also mentioned sophomores Noah Martin and Luke Laws, as well as freshman Gage Kennard as guys who've impressed during the summer and could take big leaps this winter. Sophomore Zeke Hadra falls in line as well, though Buss said they'll continue to allow him to heal from his ankle woes he sustained in football prior to returning to action.

Martin earned a few starts last season at small forward and flashed his potential as a perimeter shooter. Laws served as a nice big presence in the rotation as a freshman, though he continues to rehab from his lower-leg fracture from football. Kennard is an interesting one, as he's a new face and Buss says he's challenging for immediate minutes.

"I think you saw Noah Martin and Luke Laws both take that sophomore year jump," Buss said. "They kind of got thrown into the fire as freshmen and just kind of took that next step. Luke's battling through that football injury but we expect to get him back at some point. Noah's shooting really well right now, and I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Gage Kennard. He's a kid who wasn't on my radar to be a varsity contributor, but he's knocking on the door for a starting spot, if not starting minutes. He's really jumped out -- even the older kids have noticed this kid can play, he communicates, he's sound defensively, so he's been good."

Seniors Trevor Peterson, Trenton Wilkinson and Satchel Patberg also figure to align as potential rotation pieces due to their veteran leadership and athleticism.

There's certainly a lot of puzzle pieces to fill out, some uncertainty to delve through, though I'm not sure there's a more qualified coach in Southern Illinois to deal with such roster turnover than Buss.

SCHEDULE; LEADING UP TO OPENER

His Aces won't battle the typical rigors his past teams have endured with a Big Eight slate, with their departure from the conference this past winter/spring, though they've added some other challenging tournaments and opponents.

They'll play in three tournaments, this weekend's Capital Classic, the late-December Pinckneyville Tournament, and the Carmi White-County Invitational in late-January. Given their number of tournament games and the losses of guaranteed Big Eight games, the Aces have had to look elsewhere for games.

They have just six home games this season, one just recently added against Evansville Reitz Memorial, a team which finished 16-10 last season and figures to give the Aces plenty of trouble.

The Aces will kickoff the season in the Capital Classic, a tournament in which they'll face Edwards County (Friday at 11 a.m.), Marshall (Friday at 7:30 p.m.) and the hosts, Lawrenceville (Saturday at 11:30 a.m.). Buss said his team's chomping at the bit to face another foe, and are ready to give chase to their fifth consecutive Regional Championship.

"Very, very excited to get this year kicked off," Buss said. "This time of the year starts really hectic and you're cramming a lot of situational stuff that you feel you have to be ready for when you play in the game into about two, two and a half weeks of practice. But you have to mix that with building all of your fundamentals and things like that. It's a hectic time of the year but also a fun time of the year and I'm really excited to work with this group."

Their first home game will be on Tuesday, Dec. 3 when Mount Carmel hosts Evansville Day. The JV will begin the night at 6 p.m, followed by the varsity at 7:30 p.m.

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