VALDOSTA -- Coming off the best season in school history, Lowndes High opens its boys' basketball home campaign with plenty of expectations -- and only eight regular players in the rotation.

Due to everything from football to academics, head coach Cliff Ranew will have fewer options than usual tonight at Charles Cooper Gymnasium against Ware County. It's the second game of a varsity doubleheader that tips off at 6:30 p.m.

Lowndes' boys (0-1) shook off years of losing last season, garnering over 20 wins and advancing to the state quarterfinals before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Jonesboro. But now the Vikings must find a way to stay on top without last year's Region 1-AAAAA player of the year. Center Jon Rogers took his 6'8" frame and scoring touch to Valdosta State.

"Naturally, our number one question is who will step up and take over for Jon," said Ranew. "Are we going to have somebody that will be able to lead the team in as many categories as he did: offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, shot percentage, scoring?"

Finding a single player to replace all of that might not happen. But Ranew is blessed with what could the region's best starting five. Senior power forward Will Thompson was expected to match Rogers' output last year. He never quite got there, but Ranew noted that he and new starting center Terrance Vinson have excelled over the summer and in preseason workouts.

"We'd like for both of them to have outstanding years, to have the kind of offensive year Jon had," said Ranew.

"Will had a good summer, and got involved in some AAU games. But everybody knows, and Will knows, he just didn't have a good year. And he's capable of having a big year. He's working hard. Will's capable of playing on a college level, no doubt about that. Which level he plays on, he'll determine that by his play."

Michael Smith is penciled in at small forward, while the backcourt of Patrick Iverson and Ahmad Farley returns intact, but will be pushed by Jeremy Pittman. Ranew hopes his guards will present a bigger threat from the perimeter this season.

"We don't know right now what the situation is, whether or not we'll be that much better than last year. But hopefully we will be," said Ranew. "I feel like we're capable of having a better perimeter ball club than we did last year.

"And then of course, the other thing is our defense. Our defense has to be better than it was last year. We have to be much more consistent. But this is the most experience I've had (as boys' coach)."

The best news of all for Ranew may be a shorter region schedule. With Ware County and Bainbridge dropping down to Class AAAA, the Region 1 slate doesn't begin until January. That should allow Lowndes' bench time to get in place before the heart of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Vikings' have to play with a different pace and strategy.

"It's going to limit us a little bit, especially in the first half of games," said Ranew. "We don't want to get anybody in foul trouble."

But Lowndes has come a long way from the days of 30-point losses and playoff droughts. Even Ranew's legendary poormouthing seems tempered by an understated confidence.

"It's a different feeling, no doubt about it," he said. "The success that we had last year has certainly helped us. I think this ball club wants to get a little bit closer to the state finals."

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