â€œIf the kids donâ€™t see significant change, it only gets tougher,â€ said Purlee. â€œThis is the year weâ€™ve got to see significant improvement.â€
A stretch of three straight home games could help the Fire roll into the season since despite a 22-player roster â€” Knoxâ€™s largest under Purlee â€” the team still lists just four seniors.
Knox will open its season at home with a 7:30 p.m. game today against Eureka.
â€œI really like this team,â€ said Purleeâ€ We have 11 kids who started at one time here.
â€œMatt Goedeke and Tanner Carlson are going to be really good for us. You couldnâ€™t ask for two better guys to be leading a team on the floor.â€
Goedeke â€” a 6-4 senior from FarmingtonÂ â€” and Carlson â€” a 5-11 junior from Annawan â€” averaged 11.3 and 11.1 points respectively and top a list of 15 returnees. That list includes the teamâ€™s leading scorer, Ben Wetherbee, who averaged 11.9 points, hit 45 three-pointers and shot 80 percent from the line and 6-4 junior Joe Kozak, who averaged 11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds.
â€œMy belief in Ben Wetherbee and what he can do for our program hasnâ€™t changed at all,â€ said Purlee of the Sydney, Australia, native.
Knoxâ€™s incoming recruiting class of eight first-year players includes David Jones, a 6-7 transfer from from Air Force Academy Prep School, 6-2 guard Chris McNichols of Niles West, Joshua Jenkins of Peoria Woodruff, Melvin Taylor of Chicago Marist, 6-6 Adam Worden of Crete-Monee, Tyler Faulkner of Urbana, Johnny Callahan of North Valleys, Nevada, and Nathanial Grady of Oakmont, Calif., who has family roots in Knoxville.
â€œMcNichols played in the Central Suburban League, along with Kozak,â€ said Purlee. â€œThatâ€™s the best league in the suburbs right now. More Division III players are coming out of that league than anywhere else in the state.â€
Still considered a young team, Knox is slowly gaining experience. The teamâ€™s 12 juniors and seniors tops the four the team could count last season and the five on the roster in 2008.
Purlee hopes this is the year the Prairie Fire climb through the window and contend for their first Midwest Conference playoff stop since 2005.
â€œAnybody who knows me knows I didnâ€™t expect that,â€ said Purlee of his past two seasons. â€œI thought we would set the world on fire.
â€œI made a lot of mistakes. My kids are getting older and better and Iâ€™d like to think Iâ€™m getting older and better, too.â€