The end goal for the Yellow Jackets was reached. After missing the playoffs for almost a decade, Denison earned one of the four spots in the first year under a new coach.
And while that streak may have been broken, the overall picture of the season wasn’t good enough.
“Making the playoffs is something to build on,” head coach Dale Rhodes said. “But if you look at the record, it wasn’t what we wanted. We’ve got to improve.”
Seeing improvement in all areas and getting back to the playoffs starts as Denison opens the season by hosting Frisco Independence at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
The Jackets broke the eight-year playoff drought in Rhodes’ first season at the head of the bench after he was elevated from his assistant position during the off-season. Denison clinched the fourth seed for the playoffs with a week to spare before losing to Frisco Lone Star in the bi-district round.
“We got that monkey off our back. You’ve shown you can do it. There’s no going backward,” Rhodes said. “We got there so now let’s get there and win. We have to take the next step. I think we can.”
For the season, the Jackets compiled an 8-21 overall record to go with a 3-7 district mark. The move up in the district standings checked off a big goal but the team finished with fewer victories. The 11-20 mark the season prior had the most wins in a season since Denison’s last playoff appearance in 2011 and the first year with double-digit victories since 2012.
There is still a good core from last season ready to challenge for a winning record.
“Some really good leadership coming back,” Rhodes said. “I’ve got a lot of young guys. They can play and they’re athletic. We’re going to throw them out there and see what happens. I’ve got to tailor what I do to what they’re good at for us to be successful.”
Tarrence Gaines improved on his second-team all-district sophomore season to earn first-team all-district accolades as a junior.
Fellow seniors Nate Uber and Zaelin Wimbish, who begins the season sideline due to a shoulder injury suffered during football, have multiple varsity seasons behind them.
“I’m looking for Tarrence, Nate and Zaelin to lead this group and tell them what we expect, show them how to get it done,” Rhodes said.
Finding the right mix to put around the trio is the challenge after a large group of seniors provided much of the Jackets’ depth a year ago.
“It might take a while but I want to compete well early. We’re not taking steps backward,” Rhodes said. “By district time I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Senior Kyle Colvin and junior Keleon Vaughn are back but lost to graduation included Rustin Workman, who was named second-team all-district, Pierce Barker, Xavier Adan, Rodney Moore and Cade Gordy.
The newcomers to the roster are senior Gavin McGee, junior Asa Osbourn, who averaged 7.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals at Tom Bean last season, and a bevy of sophomores — Ross Hall, Jadarian Price, Trey Rhodes, Anders Been, Landry Massenburg, Jalik Lewis, Caleb Heavner and Jakalen Fields.
“The only thing that concerns me is the learning curve,” Rhodes said. “We’re going from six seniors to a lot of sophomores.”
In addition to non-district games against Carrollton Creekview, Anna, Frisco Lebanon Trail, Denton Braswell, Greenville, McKinney Christian, Ardmore (Okla.), Aubrey and Melissa, the Jackets will compete in the Sanger Tournament, the NCTC Tournament and the Anna-Melissa-Van Alstyne Highway 5 Classic.
Denison will open 10-5A action at McKinney North on Jan. 10 and join defending district champ North, Lovejoy AND Princeton in trying to return to the playoffs.
“It’s wide open,” Rhodes said. “You have McKinney North up here and Lovejoy is always a solid team but the rest of us will be fighting for a spot.”