WOODSTOCK – Central’s boys basketball team has a solid nucleus of players back from the squad that reached the Class 2 state semifinals last season. The Falcons’ 2018-19 preseason, however, has been no smooth ride.

The football team’s extended playoff run meant the Falcons’ basketball team was limited to just eight players until Monday. At times, practices consisted of only six healthy players, with returning starter Sam Shifflett and junior Brett Barr sidelined with groin injuries.

To compound matters, junior swingman Noah Williams is likely lost for the season with a knee injury, and forward senior Zeb Dyer is limited, for now, with a shoulder injury that arose during football season. Silas Ruhling, a junior guard whom head coach Jeff Whittle said had been playing well in the preseason, suffered a concussion during P.E. class on Tuesday, according to Whittle, the latest in a series of struggles for the Falcons as they get set to travel to Page County for their season opener tonight.

“It hasn’t been easy, but right now we’re the ‘next guy up’ mentality – somebody goes down, somebody’s gotta step in and be ready to fill their shoes,” Shifflett said after practice on Tuesday. “... It’s kind of tough right now, just trying to get guys reps and stuff but everything’s starting to come along. Our practices are getting better and better every day, so that’s something to look forward to.”

Last season was one to remember for the Falcons, who reached the state final four for the first time since 1999 and nearly pulled off a late comeback in a 62-58 loss to Robert E. Lee in the state semifinals. Central lost several key pieces of that team – Luke Estep, who was named second team all-state after leading the Falcons in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (7.4 per game), fleet-footed guard Varsey Bright (11.7 ppg) and forward Bryan Davis (8.8 ppg) all graduated – but also returns a few others.

Shifflett (8.5 ppg last season) and point guard Jared Patton (9.9 ppg, 3.7 assists per contest), two seniors and multi-year varsity starters, highlight the list of returnees, and 6-foot-6 sophomore Dominic Strother (8.8 ppg) made major contributions as a freshman last season.

“They’re gonna be tough to replace,” Shifflett said of Estep, Bright and Davis. “Those guys did a lot for us last year. But we’re just gonna have to score in different ways this year. We don’t really necessarily have as many people that can take over a game. It’s gonna be getting shots throughout the offense. We’ve got people that can score 15 a night. We’ve got five or six guys that can do that again this year.”

Whittle said his expectations for Central’s five seniors – a group that includes Dyer, T.J. Williams and Kyle Clanton — are high, adding that he’s confident in the abilities of Shifflett and Patton to take on more significant roles to help soften the impact of the graduation losses.

Whittle also said he’s hoping Strother, who is 2 inches taller than he was a year ago, can produce on a more consistent basis and harness regularly the energy he displayed in moments such as his 28-point outburst in a win over Madison County last season.

Whittle said Strother hit the weight room in the offseason and did VertiMax training to improve his leaping ability, and Patton added that he’s noticed a different demeanor from Strother, a laid-back personality whom the coaching staff pushed to be more aggressive last year.

“He’s definitely more confident with the way he plays,” Patton said, “because last year he wasn’t more into the game and talking a lot during practice stuff. Now I feel like he’s more into talking and more into being active. He’s more active. I mean posting up, he’s not a fan of that, but I feel like if he can grow into that, he can be a huge player for us this year.”

Central still plans to get out and run the floor offensively this season – “We’re gonna have to grow into it this year,” Patton said, noting some of the varsity inexperience the Falcons will contend with early in the season – but Whittle said he got mixed results in the team’s two scrimmages and wants to see Central aggressively attack the rim more than it did in those exhibitions.

“I think we can run similar stuff but … we’re gonna have to make some adjustments,” Whittle said. “I think we’re gonna have to get the ball inside more and focus on that because I thought we settled for a lot of jump shots, a lot of threes. We’ve gotta get the ball inside and get to the free-throw line too.”

Whittle said the Falcons are aiming to be the “top dog” in what he expects to be a competitive Bull Run District this winter, adding that winning district regular season and tournament titles are on the team’s list of goals. Shifflett added that Central wants to return the state semifinals, a feat that will require a complete team effort.

Whittle enlisted the help of Massanutten Military Academy postgraduate basketball coach Chad Myers to push that point across before practice earlier this week.

“Basically he’s trying to give them a lot of confidence, saying they can do the same thing; they’ve just gotta work and work harder,” Whittle said of Myers. “... We’re gonna have to work a little harder because I think (the graduation losses are) tough to replace, but I do think these guys have the capability.”

Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com