Change is a fact of life in high school sports. While athletes come and go, the fortunes of athletic programs ebb and flow.
The 2009-2010 school year represented high tide at Roff High School, which completed an unprecented sweep of fall and spring baseball and basketball with a group of seniors who were on the final leg of an impressive four-year run in both sports.
With the graduation of the most talented and decorated senior class in school history, Roff baseball coach Ead Simon and his younger brother — Tiger basketball coach Kale Simon — watched the tide go out and had to face the prospect that their programs were going to change as never before.
Ead Simon picked up the pieces of his baseball dynasty and led the remnants of three straight Class B state championship teams back to the Class A state tournament last month. Now Kale Simon is confronted with a rebuilding job that, in many ways, figures to be even tougher than the one faced by his brother.
Roff graduated six of the top seven players (including all five starters) off a team that won 27 of 31 games and was ranked No. 1 from the first to last day of a season that ended with the school’s first basketball state title in four decades. That exodus left Kale Simon — whose first three seasons at Roff have finished at the Class B state tournament — with some huge holes to fill, but he said he’s actually approaching his fourth season as coach of the Tigers with more anticipation than dread.
“Not that I don’t enjoy winning state championships, but I’m looking forward to this year more than I have in years past because it’s the biggest challenge we’ve had,” he said. “I don’t mind being the guy with the bullseye on his back, but it’s nice to be the underdog. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited about it.”
Although forward Brendon Barr — arguably Roff’s state tournament MVP last March — is back for his senior season, he is the only player on Simon’s roster who got significant playing time last season. Barr is now the undisputed leader of a team that figures to be caught in the vacuum between the glory days of the past four seasons and an uncertain future.
“I think the guys understand they’re still going to get people’s best every night, just because of the tradition that’s been built here,” Simon said. “I don’t think that’s a secret by any means.”
Barr averaged seven points and almost four rebounds per game as a part-time starter last season on a team that didn’t have an weaknesses. Three Tigers — All-State center Dylan Lemley and guards Dayne Parker (the team’s leading scorer) and Brendan McCurry — averaged in double figures, point guard Aaron Cornell was one of the state’s best defensive players, and forward Blake Logan was a force on defense and on the boards.
This year, Barr will be the go-to guy in an offense in transition and one of the leaders of a defense that has been a staple on each of Simon’s teams but which also figures to have a much different look this season.
“Brendon has a large load to carry, and he knows that,” Simon said. “The type of player Brendon was last year describes the kind of person he is. He accepted a lesser role (after moving to Roff from Ada in the summer of 2009) when you compare it to his talent level, and this year so far he’s done things that have surprised me so far.
“I think when people see him, they will say ‘where was this kid last year?’,” he added. “He’s a bull down there, but he’s athletic and light on his feet.”
Another senior, forward Tim Wallen (a move-in from Talihina last year), is entering his first varsity season at Roff, and he is expected to join Barr as a leading option in the Tiger offense.
“This will be the first year he gets significant playing time, but he’s already matured,” Simon said of Wallen, who was only eligible to play in junior varsity games as a junior. “He has a lot on his shoulders as well.
“He’s another kid who will do a good job for us,” he added. “He shoots the ball well, and for a big kid he’s pretty light on his feet.”
Chance Tolliver, a 6-1 junior will take over for the 6-6 Lemley in the post, and senior Remington Pope will inherit Cornell’s spot at the point. Junior Jeremy Grinstead and sophomore Shane Wise are the leading candidates to start on a team that Simon said will have to develop some depth as the season progresses.
“Remington got to learn from one of the best — watching Aaron every night, he matured in his own right,” Simon said of Pope. “He didn’t play basketball as a sophomore, and he needs live time at that position. He’s getting better every day.”
Tolliver’s size won’t be the only difference between himself and Lemley — who was a threat both inside and outside while averaging 15.8 points and almost 10 rebounds per game last season.
“Chance is pretty thick, and he looks like a post,” Simon said. “He’s a just a hard-nosed, hard-working kid. He gets the most out of his talent, and he fulfills his role.”
Grinstead will also be a departure at the shooting guard from Parker, who could drain a 3-pointer or knife to the basket as the catalyst of the Roff offense. Wise, meanwhile, will try to replace some the intangibles Logan provided as a role player at both ends of the floor.
“Jeremy’s strength is that he shoots the ball real well,” Simon said. “He’s not necessarily a slasher, but he shoots the ball pretty well.
“Shane penetrates decent and shoots decent,” he said. “He’s going to have to play a lot of valuable minutes.”
In addition to their re-tooled lineup, the Tigers will also change Classes (from B to A) this season. And because of the obvious drop in his overall talent level, Simon also shuffled his schedule a bit, substituting the old S.T.A.R. Tournament (which Roff will host) for the Tournament of Champions (where the Tigers absorbed three of their four losses last season) and adding Moss to replace Garber (which handed Roff its other loss).
The Tigers will open the season Tuesday on the road against a Vanoss club that, like Simon’s, suffered wholesale graduation losses.
“I think Vanoss is in the same boat we are,” Simon said. “We don’t know a lot about them. It’s hard to prepare for this first game, but (Vanoss) Coach (Jason) Fulks is in the same boat we are. If we do what we need to do, we shouldn’t have to worry as much about them.”
Roff cruised to the last three Pontotoc Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and, although the Tigers don’t figure to dominate again this season, Simon predicted they will still have an impact on the conference race.
“I feel like if the chips fall right we have a chance to be at the top of our conference, and we have some tough out-of-conference games — Latta, Stratford, Varnum and Dale — that should set us up pretty well for what we want to do.
“With this bunch, there’s so much we have to learn, and we learn something every day,” Simon noted. “We’ve simplified some things because we have so many new guys, but simplification isn’t a bad thing. It should help us in the long run. We’re just trying to be good at a few things, and that’s the approach we’re trying to take.”