The Petal Panthers are counting down the days until the basketball season officially begins later this week. They’re literally counting down by erasing and writing numbers on the board in the locker room.
The Panther basketball program isn’t used to having high expectations, so it’s an unusual situation entering the 2018-19 season. Most expect Petal to be a legitimate contender in 6A, and an invitation to the City of Palms Tournament in Ft. Myers, Florida, backs that up. The tournament is made up of some of the best teams in the country, and the Panthers open up the tournament with Glens Falls (New York), which has the state’s leading scorer.
Players like juniors Caleb McGill and Treylan Smith are major reasons why the Panthers are expected to do well. McGill can even feel the excitement in the school hallways.
“Petal is baseball and football, but you can walk up and down the halls and they’d see me, Trey or the other guys and they ask, ‘How many days?’ They’re counting down the days like me,” he said. “Teachers and administrators who have been here for 10-plus years have said they’ve never seen this.”
When McGill transferred from Seminary before his sophomore season, since Petal was a big 6A school, he thought there would be hype for the basketball season. There wasn’t much a year ago, but it’s a lot different in 2018.
He feels the excitement for the upcoming season at school and when he’s made quick trips to the grocery store. Petal is amped for the season, and it’s provided an extra boost for the team in practice, too.
“It makes you ready to play, it revs you up and gives you fuel to play,” McGill said.
The 6-foot-5 forward arrived in Petal just in time for the 2017-18 season last October, and he made the Panthers instantly better. Practice started on the 15th and his first day at Petal was on the 14th, cutting it close to get ready for the higher-level high school basketball.
He was raw defensively, Petal coach Todd Kimble said, but his offensive ability helped the team tremendously.
“We didn’t have hardly any depth to begin with,” Kimble said. “When he got here, not only did he give us depth, but he gave us a starter. We didn’t really have a true post presence, and he was a guy who was able to come in immediately and give us that dominating guy around the basket.”
McGill had to get adjusted to the speed of 6A basketball quickly, but Petal started the season 12-2 before a monster showdown with Meridian in late January. Petal and Meridian fans packed out the gym that night in Petal, and it was something Petal fans haven’t seen for a basketball game.
McGill was told the gym would be crowded, but that was because Meridian would bring a lot of fans. When he woke up from his pregame nap, he walked out and saw the standing-room-only crowd. It amped him up to score 19 points – eight in the first quarter – in the loss to the defending state champions.
He had already established himself as being ready for 6A basketball, but that game further proved it.
“I was that new guy, that new face,” McGill said. “Coach hyped me up, Trey hyped me up, but I felt like for me, I had to go out and show people why I really do this. I just know hard work and effort, no matter where you’re at, will show. I expected the success because I knew how hard I worked.”
So, how has the junior gotten better after being in Kimble’s program for more than a year? Whether it’s on the court or in the weight room, the second-year head coach said McGill has gotten bigger, faster and stronger in all aspects of his game.
“Everything about him has improved way more than I thought,” Kimble said. “A guy like that, you just don’t expect him to get the athleticism to improve like that. If we can keep him healthy, by the time he gets to his senior year, there’s no telling what’s he’s capable of.”
When discussing his improvement, McGill gives a lot of credit to his teammates and coaches. There are some days when he’s going through the motions in practice, so his teammates pick him up and keep him going.
“I feel like those guys push me to my limit,” McGill said. “I’m the biggest guy on the team so everybody will think, ‘Oh, he has that mentality.’ Yeah, I got that mentality, but those guys push me every day.”
Petal opens its season at the Jones College Tip-off Classic with Newton Friday. After two road games to Wayne County and Magee, the Panthers will play their first home game Nov. 15 against Hattiesburg.