Don't be mistaken. The Prescott boys basketball team's 2017-2018 season will not be a rebuilding year.
Despite graduating three starters, including 7'0" all-state Owen Hamilton, the Cardinals plan to return to the Kohl Center to cap off their upcoming season.
The Cardinals' success carried on after their trip to the WIAA Division 3 state championships where they finished second in state behind Appleton Xavier.
In the offseason, Prescott won the Woodbury East Ridge summer league for the first time, and took second place in the River Falls summer tournament where they beat competitive schools including Tartan, Stillwater and River Falls.
Four-year varsity player Peter Brookshaw said the past summer was probably the most successful offseason the Cardinals have had over the course of his varsity career.
"[We're] just a completely different team, really," Brookshaw said. "We're a lot more fast-paced and we match up really well with most of the other teams we play."
The team will take a hit in height average with the loss of Hamilton, but they'll work to emphasize their other strengths to make up for their smaller stature.
"I think people will look at our overall size — not having a tall 6'4, 6'5 kid — and I think that people will think that will be a weakness of ours, but I think that's going to be one of our strengths," head coach Nick Johnson said. "With our quickness and our athletic ability, our ball handling, our shooting, we're going to do a lot of good things and we're going to be very hard to defend."
The Panthers will rely on wearing out their opponents by running an up-tempo offense and a high-pressure man-to-man defense.
"We could potentially have one of our best man-to-man defenses since I've been coaching for seven years," Johnson said. "I think a lot of people are going to be saying, 'Prescott is going to be down, Prescott is going to take a big hit,' but it's definitely not a rebuilding year," head coach Nick Johnson said. "I think we'll do a lot of good things this year, great things."
According to Johnson, the Cardinals will return five of their top eight players from last year including the hard-nosed Brookshaw who proved to be an all-around weapon for his team in the 2016-2017 season with his 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game averages.
Brookshaw will lead the Cardinals along with Joe Roosen, one of the Cardinals' best defensive players; and Weston Bartsch who will step up and take over Hamilton's previous center position.
Brookshaw, Roosen and Bartsch all got to experience what it was like playing at the state tournament and want nothing more than to get another shot at claiming a state title before their high school basketball careers come to a close.
"I think this group coming back still feels like they've got something to prove," Johnson said. "That's a good thing."
The three returners want to prove that they're the best Division 3 team in the state come March, but they know their team will have a lot to prove in the coming months before the big dance.
"I think we just play like it's a sectional championship every game," Brookshaw said about playing with intensity throughout the four-month season, "and don't settle even if we're playing a team that we know we should beat. We need to work on all the things we need to work on so that when we get to the sectional championship or state we'll be ready for it."
"We can't taken anyone lightly," Roosen said.
"I think that too has been a big reason for our success. Our kids go into every game like it is a sectional championship game, it is a state game," Johnson said. "[Our] number one [goal] is we want to win our fifth-straight conference championship. Our conference is going to be very good this year, so every game we'll look at it like it's the biggest game of the year."
The Cardinals have won four consecutive Middle Border Conference championships and haven't lost a conference game since the 2013-2014 season.
Needless to say, all MBC teams will be out to get the reigning conference champs this season.
"We definitely have a target on our back," Johnson said. "Everyone wants to beat us, and not just in our conference. I don't think we're very well-liked because of our success, and that's fine. If you're going to dislike us, dislike us because we're good. Not because we're bad kids or bad coaches. We're fine with that, but that's respect to our kids when people say that."
Despite playing with targets on their backs and high expectations to succeed, the players' own desire to win overpowers any suffocating pressure some may expect them to feel.
"We want to win so badly ourselves that I don't think we're worried about what other people think," Roosen said. "I think we're more worried about our teammates and just us. We want to win so badly."
When asked what their goals for the season were, Bartsch said, "Just win a lot and not lose games we shouldn't."
Roosen had an undefeated record in mind, and Brookshaw said, "Obviously to win a state championship. That's our ultimate goal."
Some spectators may say these goals are far-fetched, but the Cardinals know what their team is capable of.
"I think people are looking past us this year, and I've heard people say that Prescott's run is over," Johnson said. "We don't feel that way. We feel we're just as strong as we've ever been this year.
The Cardinals will begin paving the way for their 2017-2018 season at their first practice on Monday, Nov. 13.
"We're ready, we're excited," Johnson said. "I mean, we are really excited to get going."