Panthers ready for breakout season

Greg Allison’s first two years at Eastbrook have certainly not been a walk in the park.

After winning three games in his first season, the Panthers finished with just one last season – a season marked by upheaval, as several players left the team when the losses began to pile up.

Nevertheless, the foundation of a strong basketball program continued to be laid. While the Panthers did not attain the success they envisioned, the Panthers enter year three of Allison’s program more experience, more unified, and more committed to be great.

“Last year, we faced a lot of challenges,” Eastbrook Head Coach Greg Allison said. “Our record wasn’t what we would have liked it to be. But with the challenges we face, we also have a lot of people who have experience coming to play this year. We are going to lean on that experience this year for sure.”

While the Panthers were barred from team practice in June due to the COVID-19 shutdown, when finally permitted in July, they met twice a week and otherwise stayed connected via Zoom.

Then when restrictions were lifted in the fall, more players showed up to open gyms than in Allison’s previous two offseasons, and Eastbrook’s head coach is thrilled with the progress he has seen.

“I think they’ve improved,” Allison said. “I think they are better basketball players today than they were in March. It’s exciting to see the kids. It’s exciting to step on the practice floor every day with them and see them progress on a daily basis. Every day, I see improvement with this group, which is very encouraging, and I think it will lead to really good things this year.”

We are just keeping our fingers crossed that we can play as many basketball games as possible this winter.”

Though the Panthers do have a strong core returning, they suffered two big losses in Alex Baker, their leading scorer and second leading rebounder (12.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg), and Bryce Schamber, their second leading scorer and their leading rebounder (5.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Last year, many of Eastbrook’s offensive sets went through either Baker or Schamber, but this year, the Panthers are deploying a different tactic.”

“It’s going to be more of a collective effort,” Allison said. “On any given night, there could be three or four different guys that could lead us in scoring. I think it will definitely be more of a collective effort.”

Despite the losses of Baker and Schamber, the Panthers bring back a plethora of talent, including Jaxson Vanbelkum, one of Eastbrook’s best shooters last year and a player who is only getting better, according to Allison.

“Jaxson is a really good shooter,” Allison said. “He has progressed his game to where he is more than just a shooter. He’s much stronger than what he was last basketball season. He can take the ball to the basket, so that helps us there.”

Brody Brodkorb provides length on defense and the ability to score points in bunches.

“Brody has turned into a pretty good shooter as well,” Allison said. “One thing people don’t recognize is how long Brody is, and that helps us defensively.”

After an excellent JV campaign a season ago, Issac Rans will look to fill the void left by Baker’s departure. The junior has come a long way in just one year’s time, and Allison will rely on him heavily throughout the course of the upcoming campaign.

“He has improved a bunch,” Allison said. “He will kind of fill in our void in the post area. He’s a very, very strong kid. I don’t know if there is any kid that we will play this year that will be stronger than what he is.”

Braxton Bowser earned his spot in the rotation as last season progressed, and with his defensive acumen and soft scoring touch, he will be another key piece for the Panthers this winter.

“Bowser is another kid that is incredibly athletic and very strong,” Allison said. “He’s shooting the ball better, but does some really nice things around the basket and scores in a bunch of different ways.”

Additionally, Western transfer Jett Engle will run the point. His scoring ability, together with his pass-first mentality, will boost Eastbrook’s offensive production immensely.

“This is probably the deepest team I’ve had,” Allison said. “And this is probably the most competition that we have in some certain areas for playing time, which only improves practice. That competition is going on every day.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to hang a dark cloud over the state, and with each passing day comes the fear of another shutdown or cancellation. However, despite this uncertainty, Allison and the Panthers plan to take it one day at a time, grateful to be out on the basketball floor, presently.

“It’s on the back of everyone’s minds,” Allison said. “We know there are going to be situations where we are supposed to play a game, and we won’t get that opportunity to play. We take the day we are given, and we make the most of what we can.”

Eastbrook opens their season against Northfield on Saturday, November 28.

“I would like for us to get off to a good start,” Allison said. “I think that will be key for us. We need to make sure we are doing everything we can as [coaches] and as players to reach our potential for this year. I’m really excited about this team. I’m excited about this group of kids that we have. I think they can be a very special basketball team at Eastbrook High School.”

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