By Les Dixon / Sports Editor
The Knox Central Panthers entered the season young and inexperienced at some key positions with only two seniors on this year’s roster, which in turn left many 13th Region prognosticators scratching their heads where exactly to rank them coming into the season.
But Brian Evans’ squad has shed the inexperience and given many people reason to believe his squad can make a run at the 13th Region crown. The Panthers already secured a 68-62 win over Clay County while putting together an impressive 10-4 record.
But it’s not been easy.
Evans has had to deal with some early season injuries and some tough early tests before the Christmas break, but things look to even be a bit tougher during the next couple of weeks.
The Panthers open a crucial stretch of games that’s going to determine the 51st District seeding while allowing them to see how they match up with some of the region’s other top teams.
“We’ve got some tough games coming up,” Evans said. “We’re going to be tested and we are working hard to get better.”
The tough stretch begins Friday at home against Pineville in a 51st District showdown with games against Barbourville (away), Lynn Camp (home), South Laurel (home), Corbin (home) and Harlan County (away) on the horizon.
“That’s why we try to play some good teams early in the season,” Evans said. “It’s a tough stretch of games, but that’s just how our schedule has fallen the past few years.
“Playing these games will make us better,” he added. “We’ve got the district games that are very important. I believe our kids will be ready to play.”
What makes things even tougher on the Panthers will be the absence of starting guard Matthew Barger, who is out with a hip injury.
“Not having Matt in the lineup is going to make things tougher — it changes things,” Evans admitted. “He’s got a hip injury and I’m not sure when he will be back. Our health has played a big role in our season this year. We have made progress, though.
“We were without him for four games earlier and we switched some things around and improved on some things. It was a good experience for our guys — they learned a lot.”
Barger missed four games earlier this season due to an injury, but came back in time to help guide Knox Central to a Williamsburg Holiday Tournament championship, as the Panthers posted a 3-0 record.
“He went down in the Upperman, Tenn., game and I thought our guys responded well,” Evans said. “I believe we’re going to be OK. I know everyone is working hard and the guys are getting better. We just need to go out there and do the best we can.”