MIDDLETOWN – What a difference a year makes.

Entering last season, not much was expected out of the Eagles, seeing they had to replace all five starters and the bulk of their bench from the previous year.

That team, however, exceeded everyone’s expectations, finishing ranked seventh in the Shore Conference after posting a 16-12 overall record and a 7-7 record in the rugged Class A North, which was good for third place.

They also earned a No. 8 seed and a first-round bye in the Shore Conference Tournament and beat a tough Marlboro team in the round of 16 before losing to No. 1 seed Ranney in the quarterfinals, but not before putting up a valiant fight. Ranney went on to win the SCT and later captured the Tournament of Champions title and the No. 1 ranking in the state.

In a reversal of fortune compared to a year ago, the Eagles pretty much return the entire squad this season with one exception, and are the clear-cut favorites to capture the A North title in addition to having a shot at their best season since 2009-10.

The Eagles return four starters and two players who have starting experience and saw extensive time on the court a year ago.

Five out of those six players are seniors who have been in the program for four years working their tails off to get to this point and now it’s their time to shine in the spotlight.

“I don’t think we have one leader, it’s kind of like a collective group,” said senior sharpshooter James Anderson. “We lead collectively as a group – we’re all together. As sophomores we all played JV together and ever since then we’ve played together over the summer and in fall leagues so we all know how each other plays and feed off of that.”

The Eagles are a guard-oriented team but they do have some size up front with 6-foot-4 starting forward/center Bobby Pirie, who pulled down 132 boards a year ago while averaging seven points per game and led the team with 23 blocked shots.

What 6-foot-1 senior forward Mike Dabas lacks in size he makes up for in toughness and a knack of positioning himself in the right spot underneath to dominate in the paint. He led the team in rebounds a year ago with 171 boards while averaging eight points per game.

The Eagles return two of the top three-point shooters in the Shore from a year ago in Anderson and fellow senior guard Jack Sheridan. Anderson drilled 86 three’s which was third in the Shore while Sheridan added 72 – good for 10th in the Shore.

Anderson led the team in scoring with 358 points for a 12.8 average while Sheridan was right behind with 327 points, dropping in 11.7 points per game. Anderson also averaged 4.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.75 assists per game, while Sheridan added 2.5 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on average.

“We like to play fast and press people after making shots,” said Anderson of the team’s style of play. “Then get out in transition and make three’s.”

Junior point guard Luke Albrecht finished fourth in the Shore Conference in assists with a per game average of 4.89 while averaging 10 points per game along with 38 steals and 75 boards.

Senior guard Rich Boyko looks to be the first man off the bench again this season – a role he flourished in a year ago and is a lock-down defender. He averaged 4.57 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals in the sixth-man role.

Senior 6-foot-3 center Jake Brown and junior 6-foot-3 forward Tom Brown give the Eagles some size off the bench along with 6-foot junior forward Julius Forte, while football standout Joe Stanzione will add some toughness underneath in a reserve role. Senior guard Joe Gervase, younger brother of former Eagles standout David, gives the Eagles another scoring option off the bench.

Last season, as a five-seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV playoffs, the Eagles picked up an opening-round win over No. 12 Hightstown, but then lost to No. 4 Montgomery in the quarterfinals – a fact still fresh in their minds as the season approaches.

“We’re hoping we can make a run this year,” said Anderson. “First we have to win our games in the regular season to get a good seed so we can get some home games in the playoffs. If we get that I think we’ll make a nice run.”