The Waynesville High School boys' basketball team is starting off the 2013-14 campaign with a bang.
And that's just fine with head coach Chris Pilz.
First off the WHS Tigers jump immediately into the Ozark Conference wars by traveling to Lebanon to take on the arch-rival Yellowjackets today in their season-opener (junior varsity game begins at 6 p.m., varsity contest following).
And then Waynesville follows that up by challenging the No. 1-ranked team in Missouri on Saturday as part of the Norm Stewart Classic - Columbia Hickman. In a battle of Missouri Class 5 top-10 teams, Waynesville and Hickman match up at 2 p.m. Saturday in a varsity-only contest at Columbia College.
Tonight the Tigers take on a new-look Yellowjacket squad.
Lebanon struggled to a 2-24 record last season. This season first-year head coach Adam Thornhill takes over a program that has few places to go but up.
As for the Tigers, they're ready to go, even if they probably would have prefered a few tune-up contests before wading into the league schedule.
"I'm sure every player in the state says their ready to play," said Pilz, who enters his third season as Waynesville head coach. "The coaches...they're not too sure.
"I look at it as each game is valuable and important. With the schedule changes, this is the only way it will work. I don't have an issue with it."
Lebanon opened its season last week by falling to 2012-13 19-game winner Branson 79-59 on the road.
In that game 5-9 sophomore guard Conner Hicks paced the Yellowjacket attack with 15 points while 6-2 junior guard Chad Howerton added 13.
"I know they have a new coach and I've watched them play," Pilz said of Lebanon. "They look very organized and are going to shoot a lot of threes. And it looks like they're capable of hitting them."
The Tigers are coming off a 15-13 season in which they nearly won the Missouri Class 5 District 10 championship, falling to Washington in the district title game.
Pilz had his entire roster together for just a brief period of time last season. This season most of the talent is back and the Tigers have the state's attention. Waynesville has been ranked No. 10 in the Missouri Class 5 preseason state poll by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association (MBCA).
And leading the charge for the Tigers is one of the area's largest and most talented front courts.
Probable starters for Waynesville tonight are 5-9 sophomore guard Joe Johnson, 5-9 senior guard Michael Thompson, 5-10 senior guard Jaron Alexander, 6-8 junior forward Juwan Morgan and 6-7 senior forward Kellieon Williams.
Page 2 of 2 - In addition, among those coming off the bench will be 6-5 senior post Javante Armstrong and 5-7 sophomore guard Reggie Walker.
Morgan, Armstrong and Williams will combine to give the Tigers a potentially devastating front line. Pilz will slowly work Armstrong back into the lineup after he went down with a knee injury late last season and missed all of the district tournament.
Last season Morgan averaged a team-high16 points and 11 rebounds, Armstrong six points and a team-high 12 rebounds and Williams 10 points and six boards. Morgan is one of the top recruiting junior big men in the state and Williams is also getting many large-school looks.
And on Saturday the Tigers will take on the Hickman Kewpies, who are ranked No. 1 in the MBCA's preseason Class 5 state poll.
Hickman is coming off a 27-3 campaign during which they finished third in the Class 5 State Tournament. The Kewpies lost to eventual state champion Rockhurst in the state tourney semifinals and then defeated Vianney in the third-place game.
Last season the two teams met in the Stewart Classic and Hickman defeated Waynesville 68-52.
Leading the charge for the Kewpies are a pair of returning all-state players - 6-3 junior guard Jimmy Whitt and 6-3 senior guard Chris Clark.
Whitt is ranked as the nation's 69th best recruit by Rivals.com. He averaged 18.6 points last season. Clark averaged 13.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and had a team-leading 117 assists in 2012-13.
Other Kewpies back are Douglas Johnson (9.1 points last season), Jordan Jones (5.1 rebounds) and Mason Murray (8.7 points).
Hickman opened its season last week by clubbing Sedalia Smith-Cotton on the road 88-49. In that game Whitt had 24 points, Johnson 21 and Clark 18.
"Our schedule is very competitive all year long," Pilz said. "Whitt and Clark are probably the two best players on (Hickman's) team. And Whitt and Juwan are probably two of the premier juniors in the state."