GARY — Coach Chris Buggs stood watching drills from the baseline at West Side practice last week and jokingly reached for his head while speculating his program’s outlook heading into a new season.
“I guess I’m lucky not to have any hair left to pull out,” he said.
The comment came in jest but was rooted in truth.
The Cougars graduated six seniors from a 22-win 2020-21 team that captured the program’s first Class 4A sectional and regional titles in 16 years. Among those gone: Times Player of the Year Quimari Peterson.
West Side does roster the No. 41 overall prospect in the country according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings in North Carolina signee Jalen Washington. But an injured right knee already ended the four-star center’s high school career.
This won’t be the same Cougar team Buggs and his staff have become accustomed to coaching.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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“It’s high school basketball, man,” Buggs said. “I’m nervously excited. It’s a breath of fresh air with new guys that have never done it at the varsity level before. Just seeing them now from where we start to where I know they’re going to go is exciting.”
West Side’s personnel changes — including losing a pair of 6-foot-9 forwards in Washington and Mason Nicholson — have left Buggs and his staff to make philosophical changes in how they’ll look to build on last year’s postseason run.
The Cougars are unproven but are heavy in athletic guards who will dare opposing teams to keep up.
“I’m very confident in this team,” senior guard Nisaiah King said. “We’re obviously a little team, but I think we’ll be looking to push more and play at a faster pace which will make the bigs on other teams tired. We want to use our skills and height to our advantage.”
King, fellow senior wing Josh Hardy and junior guard Israel Hines lead a group of players with some but not much varsity experience who are expected to see their workloads increase dramatically.
Buggs said he’s been impressed with his seniors in particular for stepping comfortably into leadership roles during the summer and taking the lead in early parts of practice while making the team their own.
“That’s been so great to see,” Buggs said. “It’s definitely exciting to be implementing a new system. It would be good to have two 6-9 guys but we don’t have that right now. We’ll do some things differently, and as a coach sometimes change makes you feel uneasy but you’ve got to because of what you’ve got.”
Those changes are tailored to fitting West Side’s current strengths. And while there are still plenty of unknown variables around what exactly that means for the Cougars, King welcomes any doubts regarding the makeup of his team.
“We’re not going to be the same but we don’t need to be the same,” King said. “We’re just working on the things we can do best and working together for each other.”
Players have changed. Play calling will be different. Buggs will be tested.
But still, West Side’s expectations remain the same — move forward.
“Obviously (the graduated seniors) brought a positive spotlight to our program and now it’s up to the young guys to carry that on,” Buggs said. “They understand a little bit of what was set before them but now it’s going to be interesting to see what they do. It’s easy to talk but to actually see them walk in the spotlight is something I’m excited about. There’s going to be some bumps in the road but we’re excited to see them grow.”