LONE HOLDOVER: Southwestern coach Andy Firth with Tristan Embs last season. Embs, a senior forward, is the Rebels’ only returning player with any varsity experience. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
LONE HOLDOVER: Southwestern coach Andy Firth with Tristan Embs last season. Embs, a senior forward, is the Rebels’ only returning player with any varsity experience. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
The old expression that "You can't change the cards you've been dealt, just how you play the hand" applies perfectly to this year's Southwestern Rebels.

After graduating five seniors from an injury-plagued 5-17 season a year ago, the Rebels already knew they were facing a big rebuilding project this year.

However, Southwestern has since then unexpectedly lost four potential starters before ever playing a game this season, leaving head coach Andy Firth with only one returning player with varsity experience in a program that features a roster of youngsters including 11 freshmen.

"I get a phone call this summer telling me that one of my returning starting guards, Michael Perry, has been in a serious car accident," Firth said. "Thankfully he is back at school now and recovering but because of the brain injuries he sustained, he cannot play basketball his senior season. I get a phone call earlier this fall telling me that another senior, Tyler Jones, has torn his ACL for the third time and will be out for the year. I then have two more returning guys who are not coming back for different reasons so it's definitely going to be a difficult season but the kids we have are excited and up to the challenge."

One of the two departing players, Gage Hartman, opted not to play basketball this year, and the other, Zach Brooks, has transferred to Trimble County, Ky., and will play for the Raiders.

As a result of practically starting at square one, Southwestern spent the offseason inside the friendly confines of Delbert O. King Gymnasium worrying less about summer games and more about just developing fundamental skills. The Rebels replaced the normal team camps and tournaments with a variety of fundamental drills and conditioning workouts.

"With 11 freshmen in the program we decided just to stay home for most of the summer and work on the fundamentals," Firth said. "Things like rebounding, shooting, ballhandling, running the floor ... those are things we can get better at and things that all these young guys can start to develop throughout the next three or four years."

The Rebels will rely heavily on senior forward Tristan Embs, the only Southwestern player who has set foot on a varsity floor and scored points in a varsity contest. After averaging just 4.5 points per game last season, Embs will not only be expected to score more points but also be the team's leader on and off the floor.

"As young and inexperienced as we are his role must expand," Firth said. "He's a capable scorer and will have to score in order for us to really get things going offensively. Plus, being the only guy whose seen varsity action, he's going to have to be an extension of me in terms of being a coach on the floor. He will have to be vocal and help guide our young guys. So far he's done an awesome job of that and has given nothing but 110 percent."

However, what the rest of the roster can bring to the table remains a mystery. Firth has seen signs that three players could emerge as factors as the season progresses including a pair of transfers.

"Tyler Ashby is a junior who lacks experience but is someone who has worked very hard in practice and continues to improve and then we have Jacob Adcock who is a 6-foot-3 junior forward who has never played a game of organized basketball before but has shown a lot of potential," Firth said of the two transfers.

"The other guy you're going to hear from is Colton Sheppherd, who was our leading scorer last year at the JV level and will be our starting point guard," Firth added. "Not only is he someone else that can score but his experience at the JV level allows him to transition into the varsity program more easily."

Southwestern will immediately be tested by some stiff competition to open the season. The Rebels host Madison in the Turkey Shootout on Wednesday and then host Ohio River Valley Conference rival Switzerland County on Saturday - two of the best team on the Rebels' schedule.

According to Firth, it's no secret that the first week is going to be a tough one facing two of the more experienced and talented teams in the area.

"We're throwing the young into a pack of wolves next week," Firth said. "We're certainly not going to dominate and we're no doubt going to be the underdog but we can only control what we can control, which is how we execute on the floor."

As for the rest of the season, Firth knows that it will be a work in a progress. There is a chance that the Rebels have a shot at grabbing a few wins against some of the smaller opponents on their schedule and even finish in the middle of the pack in the ORVC but those are thoughts Firth wants to put aside while focusing on playing hard and getting better.

"We're not thinking about the ORVC. We're not thinking about later on this season," Firth said. "The best we can do is take this season day-by-day and push ourselves to get better every game. I don't know whether the results of our hard work will show this year or next. All I know is that we're just going to come out and play as hard as we can."

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SOUTHWESTERN REBELS

BOYS BASKETBALL

2013-14 Schedule

(Home games in CAPS)

Nov. 27 MADISON 8 p.m.

Nov. 30 SWITZERLAND CO. 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 6 at Shawe 8 p.m.

Dec. 13 NEW WASHINGTON 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 20 JAC-CEN-DEL* 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 21 at Henryville 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 27 Union Co. Tournament TBA

Jan. 4 at Milan* 8 p.m.

Jan. 11 CROTHERSVILLE 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 17 at Switzerland Co.* 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 24 at Oldenburg 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 25 at Austin 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 1 CLARKSVILLE 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 7 at Scottsburg 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 8 SOUTH RIPLEY* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 13 RISING SUN* 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 15 CHRISTIAN 1:30 p.m.

Feb. 18 at Trinity Lutheran 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 22 at Jennings Co. 7:30 p.m.

March 6 Class 2A Sectional TBA

*-ORVC Games