Senior-heavy Panthers poised to build off last year’s success as they begin the 2018-19 campaign

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Coach Pat Neely pumps his fist in the air after a big point at last year’s state tournament in Casper. After exceeding expectations last year, the Panthers return this season eager to build off of their success and are primed to do so with 11 of 12 players returning and nine seniors. 

By: 
Eddie Poe eddie@hpsentinel.com

It’s hardly a stretch to say that the Wright Panthers were a dark horse team last season. They came into the 2017-2018 campaign with a starting lineup that had nearly zero starting experience at the varsity level and as a result, expectations were tempered from the onset.
But the Panthers far exceeded those expectations, finishing atop the conference at 9-1 and advancing to the state tournament in surprising fashion. This season, head coach Pat Neely says there’s unfinished business for his team that returns 11 of 12 players from last season and will feature nine seniors.
“They’re a pretty driven group,” Neely said. “Winning the conference and securing another trip back to state got them some valuable experience.
“The way they finished and the fact that they put in a lot of time this summer, they feel like there’s some unfinished business. The commitment from them is incredible.”
After a stretch of seven consecutive losses spanning from Dec. 12 to Jan. 6, Wright won 12 of its next 13 games to turn around its season and launch themselves into legitimate contention down the stretch. It was the point in the season when Neely knew his team had the potential to do something great.
“They did sneak up on some people but the coaching staff knew what there potential was,” he said. “I hate to ever use the word exceed but they worked their tails off and got better with each game and practice. Each day they put in more of themselves and were clicking on all cylinders toward the end of the season.”
The Panthers were led by 2A Northeast All-Conference Player of the Year Cody Thompson, who was also named to the All-State team. He led the East Conference with 11.3 rebounds per game and was fifth-best with 16.6 points per game.
Ian Knudsen, Chase Lewis, Ace Leithead and Jayden Vasquez were also among the best in the conference in rebounding, assists and steals, highlighting a true team effort by the Panthers last season.
One of the biggest points of emphasis this season for Wright will be its ability to bring the underclassmen into the mold and feed off the deep senior group.
“The biggest thing for the underclassmen will be understanding the work and commitment,” Neely said. “As a group the seniors are a very tight knit group. They play together well and feed off each other.
“Passing the torch down will be the theme for those guys.”
After missing the start of last season due to an injury sustained in football, big man Logan Robb will also return for Wright after owning the highest field goal percentage of the season for the Panthers at 61.6 percent.
“The way we started last year we were a little banged up,” Neely added. “This year should be a little different.”
Knudsen and Vasquez were both selected as All-Conference honorable mentions last season and will lead the Panthers in the backcourt. Knudsen led the team with a 35.5 three-point shooting percentage, 93 steals and 168 assists. Vasquez was the team’s silent voice on the floor and was consistent for most of the season.
The Panthers begin the season Dec. 7-8 at the Herder Classic in Glenrock and at the Foothills Classic the following weekend. They open up conference play Jan. 8 with their home opener against Glenrock.
As they continue preparing for the start of the season, Neely said it’s important for this year’s team to keep the passion and to not take anything for granted. By doing that, everything else should fall into place.
“With their body of work last year, they’ll have a big red X painted on them when they step on the court this season,” Neely said. “With the success that was laid a few years ago and then with what they were able to do last year, they’re eager to keep it going.
“They not only want to get back to state but have a goal to place. As a coach that’s our job to keep pushing them. They’re a relentless group, they work hard and will continue to pick each other up.”

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