It's the time of year where expectations are always lofty in high school gymnasiums across the state of Illinois.
I'm not sure if Monday afternoon's weather was a cruel practical joke or not but it's also the time of year where snow can begin to cover the ground.
Monday marked the first official day of high school boys basketball practice.
At St. Charles East, third-year Saints head coach Patrick Woods was ready to get the ball bouncing -- yes, pun intended.
"It seemed like the day came really fast from last year to now," said Woods. "I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or what but time just seems to fly. We're excited for it -- no doubt about it.
"And it adds a little touch with the snow," he added.
At this time a year ago, the Saints were eagerly awaiting the start of the basketball campaign and all-state candidate Kendall Stephens' senior season.
Stephens, who cracked the starting lineup during Purdue's 77-76 season-opening victory over Northern Kentucky last Friday, had an extremely rough start to the 2012-11 campaign as he suffered a torn labrum during the Saints' first practice last November.
While Stephens played through the pain and helped lead the Saints to their first Ron Johnson/Thanksgiving Tournament title since 1994, his season eventually came to an end about a month later when he reinjured the same shoulder during a game against Stevenson at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
There are times when Woods allows himself to reflect upon what might have happened if Stephens had stayed healthy.
"I do occasionally -- I go back to the Stevenson game," he said. "It was a 6-point game when he got hurt (again), and Stevenson went on to take second in the state. At that point, we hadn't even begun to hit our stride yet.
"It (having Stephens healthy) would've made a difference at the Proviso tournament and throughout our conference season. You always look at the what-ifs but injuries are such a part of the game. They're an unfortunate part of any sport."
Without Stephens, the Saints stayed respectable on the way to a 15-12 overall record and 8-4 Upstate Eight Conference River Division mark.
"It didn't really benefit us but looking at the bright side of it, the kids who return this year already played half of a season without him," said Woods. "We've got six guys back who played a lot of minutes last year. In fact, all six of them have started."
Headed by 2-time Daily Herald All-Area selection Dom Adduci, the list of returnees includes seniors A.J. Washington, David Mason, juniors Jake Asquini, Cole Gentry and sophomore James McQuillan.
"Obviously we'd love to have Kendall back with a fifth year of eligibility by some chance," said Adduci. "But we played more than half of a season without him. We're confident in what we have."
Adduci, who averaged 15 points per game and made 55 3-pointers as a junior, also experienced his share of shoulder problems last season.
"There were times where I was actually scared to go with my right hand strong (to the basket) because my shoulder popped out so much," said Adduci, who underwent shoulder surgery (torn labrum) last spring. "Playing fall league, it just feels a lot better and I'm so much more confident in my shoulder. I'm 100 percent."
The injury bug continued to strike the Saints this past summer.
"We had Dave Mason out with a broken nose," said Woods. "James McQuillan had a stress fracture in his leg, Jake Asquini had two stress fractures in his back, Cole Gentry had a stress fracture in his back, and Dom had to recover from his surgery."
Knock on wood -- the Saints hope to avoid doctor visits this season.
"I hope we're past that," said Woods.
"From a training perspective, we changed a few things," added the coach. "I met with a few strength trainers at Division 1 colleges and they gave me some ideas but some of it is that we don't have the resources that some of them at the college level have.
"One thing we are doing is we're trying to focus on more functional movements, especially in the weight room and from a conditioning standpoint."
Now in his 13th year as a head coach and 18th year of coaching, Woods admits that the first week of practice can be difficult.
"It's really a tryout period," said Woods. "The hardest part for a coach on the first couple days is having to eliminate kids who love basketball from the team. But it's part of the way high school sports are run. There are only so many spots.
"We're going to spend the first few days working more on fundamental things and seeing what kids can do," the coach added.
The Saints will open their UEC River season with 3 consecutive road games against Larkin (Dec. 5), St. Charles North (Dec. 7) and Geneva (Dec. 13).
"I don't mind the tests on the road," said Woods, who calls defending champion Larkin "the team to beat."
"We're going to have to play them at some point. And if we can have some success early, it could be an easier way to finish in a sense."
St. Charles East begins its Thanksgiving Tournament title defense against East Aurora on Nov. 25.
"We're really excited to get the season under way, especially the Thanksgiving Tournament," said Adduci. "It's probably my favorite time of the year."
"We're always talking about every new season being a journey," said Woods. "Today is the start of that journey."
We'll see where it leads.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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