Robert Fields was surprised by what he found at Independent when he took over four years ago.
“When I came here, first game we lose by 13 and everyone was happy,” he said. “My wife is looking at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we getting into?’ Because we don’t like losing and are used to winning.”
Fields is an experienced coach. Part of turning around a program is changing the internal expectations, and it’s safe to say he’s done that with the Panthers.
“We have been winning some games and that really got us into the mindset that we can win games,” senior forward Matthew Loveland said. “The expectation last year was to win games. This year it’s to win more games.”
Independent is coming off a 16-win season, the most in school history, one that ended in the sub-state final.
It returns many of the key players from last year’s team; add to that depth from underclassmen, and the Panthers hope to have a team ready to make a run at state tournament spot.
“We’ve been so used to hunting, now we may be the hunted,” Field said.. “It will be interesting to see how we handle success. I think every year we should be competing for championships. Those are our expectations. It took a while to get to those expectations.”
Fields also coaches the junior varsity team, and believes this helps build the program quicker. The kids enter the varsity level already knowing what the coach wants and how to run his system.
“Our goal is to get to state and win state. The thing is it’s a realistic goal now,” Fields said. “You can see it in their eyes. I told them it’s money time.”
Independent coach Willie Perkins liked what he saw coming out of middle school when he took over the program.
Unfortunately, the girls he brought in were forced to start playing much sooner than he would have liked.
“It was pretty tough,” sophomore guard Alise Coccetella said. “We came in not really knowing what to expect. We knew it was going to be harder. We didn’t really have someone to look up to.”
Independent won two games last season, and has three wins in two seasons combined. But with a solid core of young players, better times could be ahead.
The Panthers will likely have four sophomores in their starting lineup, three of them returning starters. Even the lone senior, Danielle Peterson, is only in her second season playing high school basketball.
But the team hopes to overcome this youth with chemistry.
“I think one of our problems last year was not only being unfamiliar with the level of play at high school, but also not being familiar with each other,” Peterson said. “I think as we grew closer together our desire to win and to accomplish and excel developed more as well.”
Perkins was elated by what he saw during the offseason. Youth of the team may keep it from being a factor in the state title hunt, but he believes the work the girls did in the offseason should help them get a few more wins this season.
“I’m very excited about the season, and it all extends back to that growth time in the summer,” Perkins said. “The bond is going to make 100 percent of our season. All the talent is there. It’s just them coming together and making their mark.”