Yogi Berra might call it deja vu, all over again.
One year ago, five Sterling High school seniors stepped into the lineup for the first time. About 4 months later, they won an uber-emotional Class 3A regional semifinal against Rock Falls before running into eventual state champion Peoria Central in sectionals.
Graduate 'em, replace 'em, repeat. Right?
"This year's a big year," senior co-captain Zack Everett said. "For the first time in quite a few years, we want to be that team that breaks the dry spell and wins three conference titles in a row. That's our hope."
Everett is part of Sterling's latest quintet of first-year starters, and Jim Preston enters his first year as boys head coach after assisting Julie Schroeder with the girls program. He isn't anymore interested in being contrasted against his predecessor, Ryan Brown, than he cares to be compared to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
But Preston did take a play out of the "Hoodie's" playbook.
"He mostly tells us three words – do your job," Sterling's senior swingman Tre Whittaker said after practice Wednesday evening.
"I think that's what team sports are all about – can you play your role? Can you accept your role?" Preston said.
Everett, the team's 4, and post Chase Shetter will be counted on for physicality following the graduation of double-double machine Chris Fritsch. Fellow captain and 2-guard Zach Rehmert, a.k.a. "Raging Rehmert," will need to rip cord whenever the offense buys him some daylight.
""Coach mainly wants me to shoot – get open off the cuts, and the big guys down low are going to get me open," said Rehmert, the only junior in the starting lineup. "Coach has talked to me about thinking, 'I don't miss shots.' When you get the opportunity, you've got to keep shooting in those spots. Your team needs you to shoot, and you've got to have a short-term memory about it."
Cornell Hartz, a 5-foot-7 firecracker of a point guard, will need to make everyone on the floor better. Whittaker hopes to replicate the relentless hustle and defensive prowess of Alejandro Rivera, whom he rarely had to spell last season.
"He went in when Jando got tired," Everett said. "Which was never."
"It was like three games," Whittaker said.
This time around, the Warriors will rely on their depth. Whittaker says every member of the team will need to exhibit Jando-like tenacity. That's the main message Preston sent to his players throughout the summer.
"When we played as juniors, Coach Brown would take us out but never really tell us our mistakes," Whittaker said. "Coach Preston, during the summer, would take us out, tell us our mistakes and give us another chance to fix it. If not, we would just go into deeper thought and focus in practice."
The Warriors will try to wear out the opposition with frequent substitutions and a suffocating man-to-man press.
"Get ready for our defense," Rehmert said.
"Last year, we had the idea of our defense scoring points," Everett said. "But this year, we've got 15 guys who can come in and play super, super hard for 3 minutes and wear teams down. We're going to be flying the whole game."
Mistakes will be made. They'll also be corrected. If each Warrior takes pride in his craft, who's to say today's Warriors can't take the flag and run with it?
"It's a journey and process," Preston said. "Every young man has his own path to blaze. Some are ahead of the curve. Some are behind it. We try to coach them and teach them, but this is their team. It's the seniors' last go-round."
Preston is more than happy to play the role of diplomat.
"They're such coachable kids. It's a good group. They have good attitudes," Preston said. "I don't think it's much what I've done. It's more them."
Coach: Jim Preson (1st season, 0-0)
Advancement: Lost in 3A Peoria Sectional semifinal 69-48 to Peoria Central
Key losses: Jose Knox G, Patrick Petrosky G/F, Alejandro Rivera G/F, Chris Fritsch C
Key returners: Cornell Hartz, sr. G; Tre Whittaker, sr. F; Tanner Dewitt, sr. G
Opener: Newman at Sterling, 7:30 p.m. Monday