By BRETT MARSHALL
It doesn't matter what happens at the start of each basketball season when the South Gray Rebels begin their preseason practices in November.
The expectations remain the same — qualify for the state tournament in March and roll the dice and see how the team fares in the three potential games.
Three times in his 30 years at the helm of the Rebels, his team has brought home a championship trophy, the most recent coming in 2008. They lost in the title game of 2010 to Hanover and then finished third a year ago, losing to eventual champ Macksville in the semifinals.
"Our expectations are where we're at," said Applegate on the eve of heading to Emporia for the Class 1A-Division I state tournament. "This group is a different team than the others, the makeup is different, the styles are a little different. That's what makes it fun."
The Rebels are 19-4 heading into their 4:45 p.m. opener against Hoxie (18-4) and are seeded No. 4. A victory over Hoxie would send them into Friday's 4:45 p.m. semifinal against the winner of top-seeded and unbeaten Ashland (23-0) and Lawrence Bishop Seabury (13-10). Ashland and South Gray both compete in the Southern Plains/Iroquois Activities Association and when they met earlier in the year, the Bluejays prevailed 54-49 with a 10-point fourth quarter rally.
"One of the things I like about our team is they have a lot of heart," Applegate said.
Leading the way for this Rebel edition is 6-3 junior Trenton Holloway, who averages 14 points and 9 rebounds. Senior Garret Watkins, a 6-5 forward, is the only other double-figure scorer at 12 points and grabs a team-leading 10 rebounds per game. Balance remains a South Gray trademark as seniors Ronald Martens and Wyatt Slaven contribute 9 points each.
While there is experience with six seniors, the team is interspersed with underclassmen as freshman Tate Skinner starts at point guard while another freshman, Carson Skidmore, and sophomore Caleb Clancy, see plenty of action off the bench.
"We've been inconsistent at times and a lot of that is because of our youth," Applegate said. "Yes, there's some history to some of those names in our program, but this group will continue to get better. They've improved throughout the season."
Applegate said that while the apparent strength of the team is its inside attack with Holloway, Watkins and Martens, the team is also capable of knocking down the outside shots.
"On any given night, we've had some really good offensive games, but I would say our defense has been more consistent that our offense," Applegate said. "We're not a particularly great shooting team, even with the free throws. If we do, then we're a much better team. We've been a good defensive team and we've usually taken good care of the ball."
Hoxie is a guard-oriented team unlike the Rebels, thus causing some concerns for Applegate in match-ups.
Jaxsen Moss and Colton Spresser, a pair of 6-2 and 6-0 seniors, pace the Indians' scoring attack with averages of 17.1 and 13.4 points, respectively. Moss averages a team-high 6.3 rebounds.
"They like to play a lot of man-to-man and they're really quick, and that concerns me," Applegate said. "They've got some good shooters so we're going to have to defend well to win the game."
See pairings, results in Scoreboard, Page B2.