The Elmwood/Plum City Wolves boys’ basketball team knew its offense would be challenged during the 2018-19 season without 2018 graduate Luke Baier who led the team in scoring the past three seasons.

The recent sidelining injury of the Wolves’ (2-3, 0-1) All-Conference player Tyler Maxwell hasn’t helped matters either, especially when EPC faces efficient offensive teams like the Durand Panthers (3-0, 1-0).

The Panthers came to Elmwood on Thursday, Dec. 6, and left with an 82-36 victory against the short-handed Wolves whose effort never faltered but whose offense ran out of reliable options early on.

The Panthers created an 8-0 lead before the Wolves scored their first basket of the game with 13 minutes, 59 seconds left in the first half on a Jackson Glampe bunny that was assisted by Nic Forster.

Durand’s defense didn’t give the Wolves’ ball-handlers too much trouble during the first four minutes of play, but once junior Zack Phillips picked up his third foul with 10:47 remaining in the first half, the Wolves turned the ball over three times in two minutes, 25 seconds and watched as their six-point deficit quickly turned to a 23-8 gap.

The Wolves tried out 1-2-2 and 2-3 zone defenses once both Phillips and Jordan Brunner were benched with foul trouble but had little success at stopping the deep-in-numbers Panthers who had eight players score in their 50-point first half.

“We want to get better at man-to-man defense, and we got away from that in the first half,” Wolves’ first-year head coach Zach Gilles said. “They’re quick and that’s kind of the reason we got in foul trouble. It’s tough when they’re 10 deep and they’re all well-coached, talented basketball players.”

Durand’s TJ Tulip and Riley Radle led all scorers with 15 points apiece.

Down 50-13 at the start of the second half, the Wolves were lifted by a bucket from Brunner and Forster’s playmaking, which allowed the Wolves to score 10 second-half points before Durand sent its reserves in with a 67-23 lead and 11:24 left in the game.

Phillips added five points to the Wolves’ final 36 once he returned to the game halfway through the second half, and he assisted a Bronson Huebner basket by finding the senior center with a smooth bounce-pass at the block.

While the Wolves’ late heroics weren’t enough to make a comeback run, their endless effort was enough for Gilles to see some progression from his team.

“Right now we’re just focusing on the little things like getting better defensively every day and just staying positive, because we know that we’re not that deep and we’re still learning a lot,” Gilles said. “Our guys didn’t give up, and I feel like we got better tonight.”

With Maxwell day-to-day, many Wolves players have been forced to take on larger roles, which they’ve all been open to, according to Gilles. “Our guys are all ready to take the next step,” Gilles said. “It’s difficult without Tyler because he is our leader. Without him they’re a little bit hesitant yet, but they’ve all definitely taken a step up from last year.”

One such player is freshman Luke Webb who’s taking on a starting role with the Wolves this season. After scoring six points on the night, Webb got the EPC bench fired up by taking a charge midway through the second half. The freshman forward was knocked to the ground, chipped a tooth and will be evaluated for a concussion, according to Gilles.

“He does a lot of work in the offseason, and his brother was on the state-run team, so it’s in his blood,” Gilles said of Webb. “He loves the game, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he does as the season progresses.”

Gilles also hopes to see the EPC boys’ basketball program develop into a program such as Durand’s while he takes the reigns as the Wolves’ head coach. “We’re just a young team, and we eventually want to be like Durand,” Gilles said. “They’re a model school that has the same system in place middle school on up. We’re working to get to that place.”

The Wolves will continue their season on Tuesday, Dec. 11, when they head to Boyceville for their second Dunn-St. Croix Conference matchup of the season.

Scoring for the Wolves: Forster 10; Webb 6; Phillips, Brunner 5; Noah Gansluckner, Huebner 4; Glampe 2.