Neither Elmore County basketball team extended its season past the first round of the area tournament but that did not stop the Panthers from taking positives from the year. Both squads relied on a handful of underclassmen who gained valuable experience despite the losses stacking up.

“I feel like we came a long way,” ECHS boys coach Rodney Taylor said. “We saw a lot of maturity and a lot of growth from those young kids. The future is bright and I’m excited to see what they can do.”

The boys team (5-22) equaled its win total from Taylor’s first season in 2019. Despite the tough results, the Panthers saw a new group of players shine in its first varsity year.

Payton Stephenson moved to starting point guard and quickly became the leading scorer. Garrett Allen joined him in the backcourt and provided a big boost late in the season while Zion Reed started at center in his first year playing organized basketball.

“They got better and better as the year went on,” Taylor said. “I can’t say they exceeded my expectations but I was definitely pleased with the way they played. They really developed and learned the game. It’s just a growing process at this level.”

Elmore County’s young core was thrown into the fire of the Panthers’ tough schedule. They15 games against teams that were either ranked or nominated in the Alabama Sports Writers Association rankings at least once.

“I dare to say that not many teams from (Class) 1A to 7A faced the quality of teams we faced,” Taylor said. “We competed though and it got out of hand sometimes but you’re going to learn from that. You have to take on challenges to get better.”

While the focus is already on the future, Taylor said ECHS owed a lot to the three seniors for helping build the foundation. Keshawn Benson was often a starter while Hayden Holton and Dylan Weaver came off the bench; they were all role players and Taylor said they never complained when younger guys were seeing more minutes.

“Those three kids have had a lot of adversity on and off the court,” Taylor said. “I told them how proud I was for them to turn into the kind of people that they are. It could have been easy to quit or be mad but they always supported the team. You don’t see that a lot.”

Elmore County’s girls team suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the area tournament, losing at the buzzer to Booker T. Washington. The Panthers (14-13) fell short of the sub-regional for the first time since the new playoff format was adopted.

“You really hate to see it go down like that,” ECHS girls coach Amy Rachel said. “You worked hard all game so that was tough. We have a lot coming back to work with though so that does make it easier. It’s a positive for us.”

The Panthers had just one senior and she played in limited action. All five starters are expected to return and Rachel said she saw a lot of improvement throughout this season to get her excited for next year.

After losing leading scorer Madison Traylor in 2019, Elmore County needed to find a solution on offense and a trio of players stepped up. CK Bolton led the way with 7.3 points per game but Kelley Green and Madison Britt were not far behind, averaging 7.2 ppg.

“We knew going in we would lose that scoring and it could be a rebuilding year on offense,” Rachel said. “Seeing it spread out like that was a positive for us. That gives us something to work with moving forward.”

The offense still saw struggles, averaging just 33.8 ppg with 20.4 turnovers per game. However, Elmore County’s defense stepped up when needed and limited their opponents to 36.4 ppg.

Bolton averaged more than two steals per game while Britt added one block per game. In her first year with the Panthers, Green averaged 1.7 steals and was one of only two players to finish with more steals than fouls.

“When things were not going well for her on offense, she would pick up the game defensively,” Rachel said. “She’s always a positive player. She’s just a tough-minded competitor and that’s what you want on your team because it’s contagious.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.