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Bryan Veginski
Trying to continue the tradition: Washington senior guard Ben Worner, No. 20, is one of the returnees back for the boys basketball team, which is looking for its fifth 20-win season in a row. The Panthers’ year begins tomorrow.

Washington is primed to grab more headlines in the 2008-09 boys basketball season.

The Panthers return four starters from last year’s team that went 26-5 and placed fourth in the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state final.

With six members of the hoops squad also part of the state quarterfinal football team, Washington briefly was without its full complement of players as practice opened.

But that did not slow the Panthers from working hard to gear up for a challenging opening weekend.

“We still stayed at the same pace we always have,” said WCHS fifth-year head coach Kevin Brown, who added depth should help the boys.

Washington can play up to two post players at the same time and they have a wide range of perimeter players.

Among the perimeter athletes, seniors Ben Worner, Dyricus Simms-Edwards and Brian Tigue, junior Robert Izaguirre and sophomore Mark Roth all are capable.

Simms-Edwards has shaken off a summer injury and has given Panther defenders fits in intrasquad matchups.

“He’s more athletic and has more spring than he ever has,” said Brown of the returning unanimous first-team all-Mid-Illini Conference selection.

Simms-Edwards, an Illinois Basketball Coaches Association second-team all-state nominee, averaged 17.5 points per game as a junior and shot .509 from the floor.

He also collected 4.5 rebounds per game and dished out 87 assists.

Brown said Worner developed over the summer into a player who could back up Simms-Edwards at point guard.

As a junior, Worner contributed 8.5 ppg and brings back the most three-pointers with 52. He was a .515 field-goal shooter.

Tigue looked good in the offseason moving out to the wing from a more interior position.

A year ago, Tigue was a second-team all-league pick after leading Washington regulars with .589 accuracy from the field and 4.9 rebounds per night.

He also compiled 7.5 ppg in his second varsity campaign.

Senior defensive stalwart Corey Sharp also is back.

The inside options consist of senior Jacob Weston, juniors Colton Underwood, Andrew Watson and Sam Ryan and sophomore Connor Underwood.

Ryan and Watson are smart players who could help Washington down the road.

Brown said Colton Underwood is athletic at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and Connor has come a long ways over the last year.

Ryan Grebner is a sophomore who was emerging before he broke a bone in his arm. An all-around player, he is capable of providing scoring.

Nick McClellan, a junior, also is part of the team.

The Panthers lost all-time leading scorer Matt Roth (2,103 points) to graduation. He now plays for Indiana University.

Roth was named four times to the all-M-I first team and was an Associated Press first-team all-state recipient each of the last two seasons.

In addition to the obvious shooting that will be missed from the state’s career and consecutive games three-point record holder, Brown said Roth’s headiness and the way he shared his experience with others on the floor was very valuable.

Classmates Matt McClellan, Michael Arnett and Josh Broadstone departed as well for Washington.

The Panthers are seeking their fifth consecutive Mid-Illini championship this winter.

During the last four years, Washington is 52-4 in league play.

“I think our conference is really solid,” said Brown. “It’s as even across the board as it’s been in four years.”

Limestone, which was third in ’07-08, returns conference scoring champ Donivine Stewart, a sophomore.

Metamora and Morton possess size, while East Peoria and Canton seem to have their best teams in recent years.

The Panthers’ season opens at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving when they face Fayette County (Ga.) in the Trusted Choice Tournament of Champions Classic.

In the orange bracket, the boys also will meet Champaign Central at 8 p.m. Friday in a rematch of last year’s third-place state game.

The finale Saturday will pit Washington against the white bracket team with a corresponding pool-play finish.

WCHS is the sole host of the third-annual event.

Twenty-three games will take place at Torry Gymnasium with two tilts Saturday night at Eureka College.

Brown said the tournament was “too good to let die,” after being at multiple Peoria-area venues the last couple years.

“The community jumps behind everything,” said Brown, who added a committee made up of men and women put in a lot of time preparing for the event. “This is something pretty special to Washington High School.”

Normal West replaces Normal Community on the non-conference schedule, and the Panthers will face the Wildcats Dec. 6 in the Bloomington-Normal Shootout at U.S. Cellular Coliseum.

Washington opens defense of its conference title Dec. 9 in Metamora.

New assistant: Jerry Vanderheydt took the place of Zach Martin on the boys basketball coaching staff.

He will direct the sophomores and serve as a varsity assistant.

Vanderheydt is a former Pekin Community High School and Creighton University player.