MINONK – Normally, Matt Winkler prefers getting a basketball game in before the month of November wraps up.
In lieu of the extended run of the football team, he may have to change his tune.
“Cannot hurt,” he began. “We departed the Thanksgiving tournaments some time ago. Starting in December really helps in a scenario like this.”
Fieldcrest does not have a game until Dec. 3 when Lexington arrives, which will double as the Heart of Illinois Conference opener.
The Knights return just one starter from a 22-10 team that lost 63-55 to eventual two A fourth place finisher in Chicago Corliss in the Peotone Sectional final. That is in the form of junior Jaxon Cusac-McKay, who begins his third season as the point guard.
Although he is the lone starter back, Winkler does not envision Cusac-McKay having to shoulder more of the scoring load.
“I think we’re a fairly deep team,” said the head Knight, who enters his 28th season as the program’s only coach with a record of 567-198. “I’m not going to ask him to do anything extra other than share the wealth.”
He is one of a few footballers along with senior forwards Garrett Nix and Matt Lorton plus junior guard Cory Land. All three were valuable reserves off the bench a season ago.
As usual, Fieldcrest (57.4 ppg) will rely on the three-point arc as their best friend.
“We have guys who can shoot it. We just have to spread the floor and make sure we can create enough space and not get too bunched up,” Winkler said. “We’re going to be a little inexperienced coming out of the gate.”
Defensively, the Knights allowed a shade under 49 ppg (48.8).
“How soon the guys who did not play varsity last year pick up our defensive concepts,” pointed out Winkler. “The varsity level is a lot different than the JV (junior varsity) level.”
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (33-3, 12-0), who beat Corliss for third in two A, won the HOIC regular season and the McLean County tourney. Winkler forecasts a slew of teams in contention for top honors, which includes his club.
‘I think there’s about seven teams,” he envisioned. “They’re all fairly even. There might be somebody who comes out of that pack. I think there’s going to be two or three teams that will struggle. Other than that, it’s going to be tough.”
The rest schedule is as follows (all non-tourney varsity games will tip shortly before 7 p.m. unless indicated):
Dec. 6: vs. Tri-Valley* @ Downs
Dec. 9-14: Colmone Classic @ Spring Valley Hall
Dec. 16: @ Dwight
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Dec. 17: vs. Newark
Dec. 21: @ Flanagan-Cornell*
Dec. 26-28 & 30: Bloomington-Normal State Farm Holiday Classic
Jan. 3: @ Peoria Christian
Jan. 10: vs. Le Roy*
Jan. 14: @ Roanoke-Benson
Jan. 17: @ El Paso-Gridley*
Jan. 18 & 20-25: McLean County tourney
Jan. 28: @ Tremont*
Jan. 31: vs. Ridgeview*
Feb. 4: vs. GCMS*
Feb. 7: vs. Deer Creek-Mackinaw*
Feb. 11: vs. Putnam Co.
Feb. 14: vs. Heyworth*
Feb. 18: @ Eureka*
Feb. 21: @ Fisher*
Feb. 24-28: Regional
Notes: A total of eight varsity players are on the football squad. The others are Jacob Joyal, Henry Lorton, Lucas Sidebottom and Travis Sunken, all of whom are juniors. Among those who graduated was all-league defensive choice Derek May (13.2 ppg, 42 threes and the program’s fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,339 points). Newark and Peoria Christian are new to the schedule in favor of Midland and Orion. Former Illinois State player Todd Kagel takes over at Tri-Valley. His father, Dennis Kagel, coached Fairbury-Cropsey (currently Prairie Central) from 1977 to ’83. Mitch Holmgren is back on the sidelines with DCM. He was the Chiefs’ coach from ’03 to ’12, highlighted by a fourth place finish in one A in the ’10-’11 campaign. DCM (24), Tremont (24) and F-C (20) all reached 20 wins a season ago.