The last time Howard Payne was projected fifth in its division and the West served as host of the American Southwest Conference tournament, the Yellow Jackets were one victory shy of capturing the men’s basketball championship.
HPU head coach Charles Pattillo is hoping lightning strikes again two years later — especially with a brand new court and goals on display at the Brownwood Coliseum.
First, the Yellow Jackets will have to replace last year’s two leading scorers, guard Kendrick Johnson and center Sean Wheeler, who averaged 31.4 points and 11.7 rebounds per game between them. And Howard Payne will have to do that while overcoming its inexperience as the roster of 13 features a total of five juniors and seniors.
“It’d be really nice if we could host the tournament since we have the new facilities, but we’ve lost a lot of good scorers since that time,” said Pattillo in reference to the 2005 ASC West championship squad. “But the guys we have, I think they are going to have a better team chemistry than what we’ve had in quite a while.”
Coming off a 7-18 campaign (7-14 in ASC action), the Yellow Jackets’ first test comes at 5 p.m. tonight when they visit UT-Permian Basin. HPU then hosts Southwestern Assemblies of God at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday before diving into ASC action on Nov. 26 at home against Sul Ross.
“We have to be ready to play,” Pattillo said. “We have a conference game the third game of the season. We have our first game Friday, then we play Tuesday, then we have a conference game. That’s not many warm-up games, so we have to be able to execute what we’ve been working on in a hurry.”
Depth is also an early season concern for the Yellow Jackets with so many new faces expected to contribute.
“We’re going to be a little bit lacking on quality depth,” Pattillo said. “We’re going to have depth, but we need some experience. We’re also going to have to be more sound fundamentally than we’ve been the past two years, and I think we will be.”
Headlining the list of returnees Pattillo is counting on are senior guards Lee Scott (6-1, 160 lbs.) and Travis Dawson (6-0, 170 lbs.), junior guard Gary Thompson (6-3, 210 lbs.), junior forward Tom Hermann (6-5, 215 lbs.) and junior center Brian Blalock (6-8, 240 lbs.).
Hermann and Scott have seen the most playing time of the returnees and are expected to be the focal points of the offense this season. Hermann averaged 9.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season, while Scott chipped in 9 points per outing and shot 37 percent from three-point territory.
“I think Tom is going to have an outstanding year,” Pattillo said. “He’s really been working hard. He’s worked hard in the weight room and through the offseason.
“Lee is going be one of our leaders on the floor and he’ll probably be our leading scorer. At least we’re counting on it.”
Dawson played in 16 games last year, Thompson saw action in 15 contests and Blalock suited up for just four games. The trio combined to score 54 points and grab 21 rebounds, but should see a considerable increase in playing time this season.
“Brian has the potential to have a great year and Gary and Travis will step into more of a leadership role,” Pattillo said. “Travis could possibly start at point guard.”
Guards Brock Woods (6-4, 200 lbs.) and John Bryant (6-3, 170 lbs.) are the lone sophomores on the team and more will be expected of them in their second year with the program.
“Brock has really stepped up his leadership role,” Pattillo said. “We’re still deciding whether he’ll play point guard or power forward, but in either place he’ll have a good year.
“John is a great shooter that probably won’t start, but he’ll see a lot of playing time.”
Forward Chris Cornwell (6-4, 220 lbs.) is one of five freshmen on this year’s roster and he is expected to make an immediate impact.
“Chris played on a state championship team at Thorndale last year and he’s going to be one of our starters right now,” Pattillo said. “That could be good or that could be bad, but we think he’s going to be a great player.”
Center Daytona Burch (6-7, 175 lbs.) and guards Nate Phillips (6-4, 170 lbs.), Zane Smith (5-9, 145 lbs.) and Deandray McDaniel 5-9, 145 lbs.) round out the roster.
“Nate’s turned into a real good shooter and plays pretty decent defense,” Pattillo said. “Zane and Deandray are also going to help us.”
Of the 13 members of this year’s roster, three — Woods, Smith and McDaniel — hail from Brownwood.
“We try to get some players from Brownwood every year, providing they have some we think can play,” Pattillo said. “Coach (Shane) Perkins always has them playing really great defense. They play hard and for the most part they play smart. That’s the key with these three guys from Brownwood — they play hard. Deandray and Zane may be a little undersized, but they have big hearts and will be good contributors.”
Among the areas of improvement the Yellow Jackets will focusing on this season are defense and their play on the road.
Howard Payne gave up an average of 82 points per game last season and allowed more than 90 points five times — all of which occurred during the final eight contests.
The Yellow Jackets also posted a 2-11 record on the road, while finishing 5-7 at the Brownwood Coliseum.
“To do any good in our conference you have to win at home and steal a few on the road,” Pattillo said. “That has to be our plan.”
As for the ASC West race, Pattillo feels the four teams picked ahead of HPU are deserving of the recognition.
“Mary Hardin-Baylor, I understand, has a lot of big kids this year,” Pattillo said. “McMurry has the only seven-footer in the conference that I know of. They’re not projecting him to be a real contributor, but they’ll always be good. Hardin-Simmons got some playoff experience last year so that will motivate them to have a good year. And Concordia is always tough because they have such great shooters and that always put pressure on you. “I’d have to go with those teams right now.”