WHEELING - It's a new season and a new journey about to begin but the destination remains the same for the boys' basketball team at Wheeling Park High School.
Back-to-back frustrating losses in the West Virginia Class AAA championship game have only made the Patriots more hungry for another shot at the big prize. This goal appears attainable again despite the graduation last spring of arguably two of the best players ever to wear Wheeling Park basketball uniforms.
Gone on to West Liberty and currently sitting out redshirt seasons are three-time all-stater Bubby Goodwin and inside leaper Marqez O'Neal, second team all-state selection and twice a first-unit pick on the All-Valley Big School squad.
Goodwin averaged 19.8 points and 5.3 assists as Park also earned a third straight Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Class AAAA Division championship.
O'Neal, an intimidating shot blocker and defender inside, averaged 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 65 percent from the field.
Another senior departing after the stellar 24-4 squad was 6-foot-7 backup postman Reed Simpson, now playing at Muskingum College.
Expectations are high as usual for Coach Michael Jebbia as he looks forward to beginning his sixth season at the helm on Dec. 7 in Morgantown against University.
Jebbia's first five years have resulted in a sparkling record of 100-27 and three straight trips to Charleston for the state tournament.
''It took us a couple of years to get back in the Triple-A hunt,'' Jebbia noted. ''I think we are there now and we have a legitimate shot to make another great run.''
The presence of seven seniors, including three highly regarded starters, leads Jebbia to believe the Patriots will put an even deeper team on the court this winter.
''We will rely heavily on our big three of Vondel Bell, Errin Baynes and Boo Lathon. They played in a lot of games and came on strong last year,'' Jebbia said.
''Defensively we are going to be solid again. We take a lot of pride in playing defense. Offensively, I also think we are going to be able to score the basketball. Last year we relied on Bubby and Marqez. They were super players but our scoring may be spread more across the entire lineup. We could have four players in double figures every game.''
Baynes (6-2) averaged 6.0 points per game and was a solid defender. Entering his third year as a starter, the athletic Baynes is a 7-foot high jumper and already has been offered full track scholarships by Maryland, Kansas State and Southern California.
Lathon (6-2) became a full-time starter last season when he averaged 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. He also possesses excellent jumping ability and defensive skills. Jebbia anticipates the 2011 third-team all-stater becoming a double-double performer in points and boards.
The 6-4 Bell's defensive skills and quickness were also keys to Park's state runner-up finish as he averaged 7.0 points per game. He is another player Jebbia believes will be able to increase his scoring production this season.
''Right now we have six starters,'' Jebbia responded when asked to name the rest of Park's first five.
The contenders are senior Emil Popicg (6-2), junior Michael Thomas (5-9) and sophomore sharpshooter Luke Saseen (6-3).
Popicg was the sixth man last season but started in the state tournament, including the championship game. Possessed with solid all-around skills, he shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Thomas, also regarded as a good defender and capable shooter, buried 45.2 percent of his attempts from behind the arc, making it likely that his minutes will increase this year.
Saseen lettered as freshman when he displayed very good athleticism, jumping ability and a sweet touch shooting the basketball.
''All of these kids are capable players that we expect a lot from this year,'' Jebbia said. ''Once we get into the season, we will find out which guy is more comfortable coming off the bench and go from there.''
Rounding out the cast of seniors are Na'Kwaun Phillips (6-3), Kody Geisel (6-7) and Wheeling Central transfer Lee Peluchette (6-3). Four juniors vying for varsity time are Quashad Pugh (6-0), Andrew Kowalo (6-3), Zach Snedeker (6-1) and Duquan Smith-Ellerbee (6-0).
Park's schedule continues to be a demanding one as entrance into the TRAC League has the Patriots playing home-and-home series against sectional rivals University and Morgantown instead of meeting those rivals just once each as was the case in the past.
The always-formidable Mohigans are led by 6-8 junior Nathan Adrian, who is already committed to West Virginia University.
George Washington, which held off Park in the 2011 state championship game, will pay a visit to the Friendly City on Friday, Dec. 30. The Patriots also will play host to a one-day Tipoff Classic on Saturday night, Dec.17. Union Local and Magnolia will meet in the opener at 5:30 p.m., followed by a clash between Park and North Allegheny. The WPIAL visitors were 20-4 lastseason.
Other highlights include a Jan. 7 clash against Philadelphia St. Joseph's Prep in the Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling Jesuit University and a Feb.15 battle against South Charleston in the Charleston Catholic Classic at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
Other home-and-home series are booked against Wheeling Central, John Marshall, Brooke, Logan and Parkersburg South.
Steubenville and Zanesville will be met once each.