Ck Bolton

File / The Observer Elmore County’s CK Bolton (5) returns as one of the Panthers starting guards.

There may be different expectation levels for the Elmore County basketball teams entering the 2019 season but both the girls and boys team are dealing with some of the same problems before the teams have even played their first game. The Panthers lost plenty of talent and production from last year’s squads and now both coaches are dealing with some early injuries that caused early roster shakeups.

Girls coach Amy Rachel will have to replace three starters from last year’s 16-win team, most notably 1,000-point scorer Madison Traylor. While replacing Traylor’s production may be impossible, Rachel has been impressed with how her players have stepped into the leadership roles left by last year’s senior class.

“That’s a dilemma that every coach runs into at some point,” Rachel said. “It’s not just about the scoring and the production but it’s about being a leader as well. The returning players have stepped up though and are filling those roles. I’m very optimistic about this season.”

Unfortunately for the Panthers, one of those returners with high expectations went down in one of the first practices. Kendall Downey, who started last season until a knee injury kept her out for the second half of the year, reinjured her knee and is expected to be out the entire season.

“That was a real blow to us,” Rachel said. “She worked so hard to get back on the court so that was tough to see. But she can still fill that leadership role and she has kept coming to practice. I see her working with some of the younger players off the court to let them know what’s going on when I’m running things on the court.”

Downey was not the only returning player and the Panthers will now be looking even more to the other players to step up. Rachel said Madison Britt has matured on the court and she is expecting her to be a force in the post.

Edgewood transfer Kelley Green already made an impact on the volleyball court at Elmore County and is now ready to move into the point guard role for the Panthers. Green will likely split time with CJ Thornton and CK Bolton as the primary ballhandlers.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments with being such a guard-heavy team,” Rachel said. “But we hope to push the ball as much as possible. So if we can play fast and under control, that can be an advantage for us.”

Elmore County’s boys team is also looking at a lack of post players but depth in general may be an issue for coach Rodney Taylor and the Panthers this season. Taylor said he expects to have just six players available for next Tuesday’s opener at Tallassee after some injury news from the football field.

Cole Booth and Hayden Holton were supposed to be major contributors this season but both have suffered shoulder injuries and their timetable for a return is questionable.

“We knew this was going to be a rebuilding year and that happens to every program,” Taylor said. “And with what has hit us now, we just have to come to work every day and try to get better. These kids are hard workers and they really want to have success so by the end of the year, I think we’re going to get a lot better.”

The Panthers have some fresh faces which should bring some bright spots after losing four starters, including DJ Patrick and Kwan Bickley. Point guard Payton Stevenson is just a freshman but Taylor had some high praise for him and his ability to lead.

“He’s pretty special,” Taylor said. “He always wants to be in the gym. He would be in there with the ball in his hand all day if he could. When it’s all said and done, he could be one of the best this area has ever seen.”

Stevenson is going to get some help from transfer Zion Reed who will start on the wing. Taylor said his athleticism may not be as high-flying as Patrick’s was but Reed is just a sophomore and can bring plenty of excitement to the gym.

Keshawn Benson returns as the team’s top threat from beyond the arc while Cole Downey is expected to see playing time as a guard and a forward to help keep players as fresh as possible.

“These kids are definitely ready to roll,” Taylor said. “I’m excited to see what can transpire with these young guys. We want to see the team get better and that’s the goal every year. I’ve seen some teams with reduced numbers really shock some people.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.