MARINETTE - When it comes down to it, the St. Thomas Aquinas Academy boys' basketball has the talent to compete with anyone in the M&O Conference.

Buying into the belief is what head coach Ric Powers hopes his talented and experienced group of players can do.

A team filled with seven seniors, three juniors and two sophomores and no players lost from a year ago, gives Powers the feeling this could be a special year.

"We have the horses to compete in this conference. They just have to work for it," Powers said. "We've come from being the youngest team in the conference three years ago to the oldest. Hopefully hard work will pay off."

In the offseason and early in practice, Powers has had the help of Justin Bardowski, older brother of Jameson and Brennan Bardowski.

Justin Bardowski has focused on conditioning and overall team strength, pushing the players to be ready for game-situations as the Cavalier offense predicates an up-tempo style.

"I'll tell you one thing, this group is ready for track season," Powers said. "We're pushing these kids even harder then we have before because this is the year we're ready to make the next step."

Defense was the focal point of the Cavaliers demise a year ago. There were several scoring threats, but too many teams put up gaudy offensive numbers against them.

"You can't give up 60 points and expect to win, no matter how good your offense is," said Powers. "Looking at the top teams the last few years, they all had one thing in common. They could shut down any high-powered offensive attack."

The starting five of Kiefer Powers (6-1, senior), Casey Boyle (6-2 senior), Mike Schmidt (5-9, senior), Jameson Bardowski (6-0, senior) and sophomore Brennan Bardowski (5-10) all return.

Powers and Jameson Bardowski were among league-leaders in scoring last year and can light up a gym in a hurry if given the opportunity.

"They both were great scorers last year," Powers said. "If we can get their defense to match their offense, they'll be two very good basketball players."

Boyle suffered an ankle injury midway through last year and the team wasn't the same since and he'll be relied on to take care of the dirty work inside.

Off the bench, Varaam Vafant, a 6-3 junior from India is expected to contribute heavily as he is athletic and lanky with the ability to score.

"Varaam will be a nice piece off our bench we missed last year," Powers said. "He brings size and raw talent and hopefully we can keep him around for two years."

Junior Robbie Paul (6-30) is a big body inside along with 6-0 junior Evan Beranek, a player who gained valuable experience last year.

Junior Mitchell Harvey (5-6), is a quick guard with scoring abilities off the bench.

Other players include seniors Jon Chilcote (6-0), Chase Brumm (5-11) and Alex Votava (6-1) and sophomore Levi Carlson (5-11).

A total of 28 players are out for the program, a great sign that gives Powers options for more junior varsity and freshman games.

"Our numbers are great and it helps when you're trying to build a program," Powers said. "Now we'll have more games to give other kids an opportunity for more playing time."

Powers expects Peshtigo, Suring and Wausaukee to be among the top teams and also sees Crivitz as a talented sleeper squad.

"Among our goals for the year, two stand out. One is to take down Peshtigo and the other is to beat Suring at their place," said Powers. "I think this group can do both things if they buy into the system and play as one team with one mission."

Powers is assisted by his brother Terry Powers and Bardowski.