Petal basketball ready for late-season run

By CAMAL PETRO,

PETAL – For a team that lost a Division I player from last season’s roster and is guided by a first-year coach at the school, the Petal Panthers are quietly playing under the radar for a 6A program.

At 10-2, Petal hasn’t played nearly as many games as some teams in the state, but it’s winning and proving competitive in a tough region. For head coach Todd Kimble, who came to Petal after coaching two seasons at Purvis, he wasn’t sure how his team would fare the first half of the season because he wasn’t familiar with most of his opponents.

But, after a 13-point loss to Biloxi in early November to begin the season, the Panthers ripped off nine straight wins over teams like Wayne County, St. Martin and Hattiesburg. While those programs aren’t seeing the success it’s accustomed to, Petal did what it had to do in those games and handled its business.

“There were some games we played really well in and there were some games we did not play really well in,” Kimble said his team’s early-season success. “We’ve managed to sneak by those we didn’t really well in, but I think when you have a group of guys who are trying to do the things I’m asking them to do, and these guys are, when they’re trying to understand it, as a coach I can’t complain too much.”

Petal Treylan SmithA pair of sophomores and senior leaders lead this season’s squad, as sophomores Treylan Smith and Caleb McGill both are averaging 14 points per game. The 6-foot-4 Smith is bringing down nearly eight boards per game, while the 6-5 McGill is averaging almost six rebounds.

Seniors Mykah Brown, Matt Butler and Marquise Bridges, as well as junior Don Avilla, who had one of the game-winning blocks in the win over Oak Grove, are all providing much-needed depth it takes to be a successful team.

Kimble called Brown his team’s glue, as he’s averaging 11 points per game with three assists and two steals.

“This summer when I first got these guys, nobody knew about (Brown),” Kimble said. “No coaches knew about him. I started making phone calls to the junior college coaches around here and I said, ‘Look, I have a guy who can play in your league,’ and every coach that walks through that door says, ‘We have to have him.’ He’s been a guy, who from this summer till now, has really increased his stock.”

Opening the season with Biloxi was a challenge. The Indians are 19-1 on the season and suffered their first loss last week to Harrison Central. Kimble said his team wasn’t necessarily ready for that type of game that early in the season, but the what his team learned from that experience couldn’t be duplicated.

Petal played its final game of 2017 on Dec. 15, taking a 9-1 record into the Holiday break, then it played its first game in 22 days on Jan. 6 – a 37-point thrashing of Pass Christian.

A hiatus from a competitive game isn’t uncommon for a high school basketball team, but the length of Petal’s is more than most teams will take off. Kimble subscribes to the notion of a week off from basketball is exactly the same as three weeks off. His team practiced for five days prior the Pass Christian game, and it resulted in a monster win.

“If they’re going to be off a week, they might as well be off three weeks. It doesn’t really matter,” Kimble said. “You’re going to get the same stuff and you have to go back and fix things again. I thought we played pretty well against Pass Christian, not great. We were a little rusty on some things, but we kind of got it back going again.”

In tough back-to-back emotional games, Petal split with Meridian and Oak Grove last week to begin region play. Against the Wildcats, the Panthers wanted to prove they can keep up with the state’s powers, then after the seven-point loss, they turned around and beat the Warriors with a defensive effort in the final seconds.

“Thing about that, you have the No. 1 team in the state on Tuesday then you have to turnaround a play a rivalry game on Friday,” Kimble said. “I tell my guys, ‘I don’t want you to play with emotion every night. If you play with emotion just because it’s a big game, then the next game you’re not going to have it.’ I saw a little let down in the Oak Grove game, which really surprised me.

“If you can get up for any game, you should be able to get up for that one.”

Of course, Kimble credited the Warriors for making it difficult that night.

On Tuesday, his team was supposed to be gearing up for the third region game of the season at George County, but Winter Storm Inga cancelled nearly every after-school athletic event in the state. Instead, his team was practicing until the school’s early release at 1 p.m., and Kimble was seen getting into the workout with his cowboy boots on. Joking after the practice, it still hurts to move.

After a flat practice on Monday when his players didn’t have school, he thought his team got the energy he wanted to see back on Tuesday in the abbreviated practice.

“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get (the energy) back,” Kimble said. “Where’s the button I have to push to get where they were? I saw that (Tuesday) in the little time that we had.”

Kimble believes his team is in perfect position to make another push heading into the postseason, and it all started with last Friday’s win over Oak Grove. The Panthers travel to Oak Grove for Round 2 Friday night, and a win puts them in perfect position to at least claim the No. 2 seed in the region tournament.

The funny thing is, the two rivals will probably matchup with each other in the February tournament and it will be played at Oak Grove. The only thing separating the two will be the different color jerseys and the momentum each team can bring into the possible third matchup.

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