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‘Sky’s the Limit’

Lincoln Prep’s buy-in sets up for big stretch run
Sunday, February 11, 2024
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Photo by Tony Valentino

It’s natural whenever a new season rolls around in high school sports to think in terms of returning and departing talent.

Who’s coming back? Can someone develop into a regular rotation piece? Will young players be able to match the production of the previous year’s stars?

The Lincoln Prep Panthers had to face those questions entering the 2023- 24 campaign after a 24-5 finish and a loss in the Division IV Select state championship last season, with seniors Bralyn Mayfield (18.9 points, 11.7 rebounds), Brandon Heard, and Kobe Mack (both averaged over 9 points per game and 4 rebounds in the postseason) gone to graduation.

A clear void in terms of scoring and size was going to be missing as the 2023- 24 journey began for the reigning District 2-1A champions and state runnerup.

But Antonio Hudson, head coach of the Panthers, knew his group had a chance to make up for it – if they could buy into a collective vision, one that’s built on shared production rather than two or three dominant scorers.

Safe to say it’s worked.

Lincoln Prep (17-7, 6-0) has won 14 straight, with its last loss coming on Dec. 22, while securing another undefeated District 2-1A title and have positioning itself to have a first-round bye and host come postseason time.

“When you graduate people, they think that they have to replace the points just because Bralyn graduated at 18 points, one person feels they have to do that,” Hudson said. “But if we come together and get four people scoring four, five, six, then you get that same build.

“And at the beginning of the season, it was a test,” he continued. “It was hard for everybody to buy in. But once we had everybody playing, which the first game we had everyone was the Union game and we lost that one. Since then, we haven’t lost. There are still moments in games where we try to be individual but overall, I think they’re bought into it.”

Prep has put itself in this position thanks to multiple players from all different experience levels stepping up in the absence of Mayfield, Heard and Mack.

Stephen Burks, the Panthers’ lone senior, has averaged 17 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.5 steals during the win streak. In district, he averaged 21.2 points.

Burks said he’s all for working within a structure, rather than put on the Superman cape himself and try to replace Mayfield onefor- one.

“Bralyn was a great teammate last year so we’re just trying to get the job done for him because this is my first year being down low where he was and we’re just trying to be a great teammates,” Burks said. “We have a lot of guards out there that aren’t selfish at all. With a good point guard like Trumarion (Smith) who plays his role, Zion ( Hicks), Devin ( Burton), and the bigs we have, we just have a lot of rotations.”

Trey Spann, a sophomore, has averaged 11 points and 5.4 rebounds during the streak as he’s developed from his honorable mention All- District selection last season.

While Spann has shown he’s still a solid outside shooter with 12 three-pointers over his last four games, he knows he can’t just be a launcher on offense anymore – not if Prep is going to win.

“Last year, my main position was to catch and shoot and hold defenses out and this year I have to do more passing and get my teammates involved and get more aggressive on offense and defense. Anything for us to succeed.”

Amaraje Young, a junior, has been good for 11.7 points per game, 2.3 rebounds, and 3.3 steals across the recent stretch as well, while Smith, a fellow junior, has set the table with 5.2 assists and 5 points per game over the win streak. Don’t forget about Burton as well, who’s averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds over the last month and a half.

Balance is what Hudson wanted out this iteration of the Panthers, balance that makes them harder to predict and defend on a nightly basis. Over the last six games, Prep has not had the same leading scorer in each win.

“Last year, I think my biggest role was defense and get stops in games but since we lost Bralyn as the top scorer, we all gotta put up more points and I’ve had to have a bigger role on offense now,” Young said.

Prep hitting its stride over the final two months of the regular season has become common over the last three seasons, with the Panthers holding a 33-5 record over January and February starting in the 2021-22 season. A mark like that shows Hudson that his team matures as the year goes on and has always been willing to play to the staff’s standards when the final stretch kicks in.

This season has shown him nothing different.

“Watching them grow has been fun to watch, but as a coach I know we can get better and if we ever get fully together where we can put 32 minutes together of doing it the right way, we can be really dangerous,” Hudson said. “ I tell them all the time how proud I am of looking at where we came from to where we are now, it’s a big difference. And like I said, the sky’s the limit. We’re small but we’re scrappy. We’re tough. We fight. And our district has challenged us a lot where it will be worthwhile in the playoffs.”

The Panthers will close the regular season at home against Dunham (22-6) Wednesday at 6 p.m.