Anna’s boys basketball will have an uncharacteristically late start due to the football squad winning the Division VI state championship last Friday.
The late start will probably be the only uncharacteristic part of the season for the Rockets, who should be among the area’s best teams and the favorite to win the Shelby County Athletic League for a third consecutive year.
A deep postseason run like the school’s football squad is likely as well. The Rockets advanced to a Division III regional final last year before losing to Cincinnati Purcell Marian.
“We will have the speed and athleticism to compete with many teams in the area,” Anna eighth-year coach Nate Barhorst said.
The Rockets fast-paced motion offense and man-to-man defense was too much for most opponents to compete with last year. They finished 25-3 overall and 11-1 in SCAL play, good for a first-place finish ahead of second-place Jackson Center, who was 9-3.
Anna loses two key players to graduation in forwards Carter Elliott and Griffin Doseck, who was the SCAL player of the year and already is earning playing time at Capital University.
“We lose quite a bit of size,” Barhorst said. “One of the concerns will be if we can rebound and play against taller teams. If we can solve these issues, we should have a solid season.”
The Rockets’ three returning starters were all key starters on the football squad: seniors Bart Bixler, Riley Huelskamp and Isaac Lininger.
Bixler and Huelskamp were first team all-SCAL selections last year and split time at point guard. Bixler, who is 5-foot-11 and was the football team’s quarterback, averaged 16.6 points and 2.6 assists per game. Huelskamp, who is 5-10, averaged 11.6 points, 3.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game.
“Just like football this past season, Bart will be relied upon for leadership on the basketball court,” Barhorst said. “He is a scorer, great in the open court and has improved his outside shot. Bart draws the toughest assignments on defense and more than anything is the ultimate competitor.
“Riley will also be counted upon doing a variety of things on the ball court: handling, scoring, rebounding and tough defense. His vocal leadership is key to our team as he is relied upon to help get the team through adversity.”
Lininger, a 5-11 guard, averaged 5.7 points per game last year and will be looked to for more offensive production, as will returning letterwinners Justin Murray and Kamren Steward. Murray, a 6-4 senior center, averaged 3.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Steward, a 6-1 senior forward, averaged 5.3 points per game.
“Isaac became an X-factor for us in many games with his gritty play, especially down the stretch in tournament play with hitting the boards,” Barhorst said. “He can defend, ball handle and score when needed.
“Justin played an integral part in giving us much-needed depth at the forward position. He could finish down low on a good post move as well as hit the 15-footer. With Justin’s size, he has a great ability to rebound. …Kam was a huge spark off the bench last season and will be looked upon to have an expanded role. He has a great combination of speed, athleticism and power.”
Key newcomers include 6-2 junior forward Ben Kovacs, 6-2 junior guard Isaiah Masteller, 6-3 junior forward Jacob Robinson and 6-0 sophomore guard McKane Finkenbine.
“Ben has worked hard this past offseason and has the ability play inside as well as play outside and hit shots,” Barhorst said. “… Isaiah will help give us a big boost on the perimeter. He is quick, his shot has improved, and defense has started to become a priority for him.
“… Jacob has the ability to play inside or outside and hit anywhere from the floor. McKane is one of the program’s best shooters and passers. He has worked hard to add muscle in the offseason.”
Anna will open the season on Dec. 21 at New Bremen. It will be a busy two-month stretch for the squad, as five other games originally scheduled for earlier in the year were postponed.
Aside from its SCAL slate, the Rockets have tough nonconference matchups scheduled against Midwest Athletic Conference heavyweights Marion Local, Versailles and St. Henry. The squad also has a matchup against Ottoville in Flyin’ to the Hoop at Trent Arena on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Barhorst said the SCAL will be strong with most teams returning key players from last season.
Jackson Center hoping for another good season
Jackson Center won its fifth district title in eight years last season and looks to have the pieces to have another good season.
The Tigers, which are off to a 3-0 start, have three returning starters and five total returning letterwinners from last season’s 22-6 squad, which lost to St. Henry in a regional final.
Jackson Center proved tough with its methodical pace and oftentimes stifling man-to-man defense last year, and that shouldn’t change this year in coach Scott Elchert’s 21st season at the helm of the program. The team averaged 48.5 points per game and allowed an average of 37.9 points per game.
The Tigers’ returning starters are seniors Christopher Elchert and Jerron Reese and junior Aidan Reichert. Reichert, a 6-4 forward who was first team all-SCAL last year, led the squad with 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season. Elchert, a 5-10 guard who is Scott Elchert’s son, averaged 7.4 points per game. Reese, a 6-2 forward, averaged 4.8 points.
Returning letterwinners include 5-11 senior guard Garret Heitkamp and 6-5 senior post Calvin Winner. Winner is back after suffering a season-ending leg injury in a scrimmage last year. He averaged 4.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in 2017-18.
“We’re a fairly veteran group,” Scott Elchert said. “We’re looking for a second consistent scorer and want to be very good at the defensive end of the floor.”
Seniors Mason Platfoot, Garrett Heitkamp, Clay Akers and Garrett Prenger, juniors Trevor Sosby and Jacob Vetter, sophomore Carson Regula and freshman Camdyn Reese round out the roster.
Fort Loramie looking for same finish, different start
Fort Loramie finished strong and won its third consecutive district title last season after starting off slow. The Redskins will look to make another deep tournament run and avoid the slow start this year.
The squad, which was 1-0 entering a home game at Houston on Friday, has one returning starter and five letterwinners back from last season’s 19-8 campaign.
“With only two seniors on our roster we will need our young guys to grow up in a hurry,” sixth-year coach Corey Britton said. “We will need to practice extremely well to make up for lost time that we missed due to our football team making another great run in the playoffs.
“For the second-straight year we will have to find some new people to step up and score the basketball. We lose our two leading scorers from last year’s team and we need to fill that void. We will have to lean on our defense which has been very good to us the last couple years until we figure out our roles.”
The team’s lone returning starter is 6-2 senior guard Nick Brandewie, who averaged 7.7 points per game last season along with 2.2 assists and 2.4 rebounds.
“Having Nick back is big for us,” Britton said. “He is a four-year letterwinner and a very hard-nosed kid. Hopefully he can carry us at times early in the season while we continue to grow.
“We will have to develop depth at the varsity level. Our bench is very inexperienced right now so developing that will be key to compete on a nightly basis. Our season will be predicated on how well we come together as a group and play as a whole unit. I think we have pieces to compete, but if we don’t play good team basketball we will struggle.”
The team’s other returning letterwinners are 6-3 junior forward Grant Albers, 5-10 junior guard Nolan Berning, 5-10 junior guard Nate Meyer and 6-2 junior guard Caeleb Meyer.
Nate Meyer was one of the team’s best defensive players last year according to Britton and will be looked upon for more added offensive production this year. Britton said Berning will be the team’s point guard and Albers will be looked to for scoring and rebounding in the paint.
The team has three key newcomers according to Britton in 6-3 senior forward Evan Hoelscher, 5-9 junior guard Devin Ratermann and 5-10 sophomore guard Damon Mescher.
Britton said the SCAL is as good as it’s been in his six years at Fort Loramie.
“It has always been extremely tough but I don’t know if it has ever been this good top to bottom,” Britton said. “I think every team in the league can beat anyone on any given night. …There will be a lot grinders in the league this year, there is no doubt about it.”
Botkins looking for more consistency
Botkins got going in the second half of last season but lost in a first-round tournament game and finished 11-12 overall. The Trojans, which were 1-1 entering a game against Fairlawn on Friday, will look to finish above .500 this season with seven returning letterwinners.
“Our goal is to compete in the highly competitive SCAL,” second-year coach Sean Powell said. “With only one senior, we will look for leadership out of our junior class. We will play an uptempo style and emphasize defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball.”
The Trojans’ uptempo style got going late last year as the squad won 11 of its last 18 games. Junior guards Zane Paul and Jayden Priddy-Powell return along with senior guard Elliott Goubeaux to help run the team.
Priddy, who came off the bench after missing the first half of last season due to the OHSAA’s transfer rule, averaged 12 points per game. Paul averaged three assists and two steals per game.
“Paul is a three-year starter, and Priddy will lead us at the point guard position,” Powell said. “Goubeaux brings leadership on the defensive end.”
Goubeaux and Paul were starters last year, as was 6-6 sophomore post Jacob Pleiman, who averaged seven rebounds per game. Other returning letterwinners are 6-4 junior post Denton Homan, 5-9 sophomore guard Jaydon Wendel and 6-0 junior wing Tyler Free.
“Denton will step in and take the challenge guarding the toughest assignment,” Powell said. “Jacob could have a coming out year for us in the post. Jaydon is our spark off the bench and we will look for him to continue playing at a high level. Tyler will bring versatility to our rotation.
“We will look to our junior varsity team to add a few pieces. Garrett Greve has had a tremendous off season and we look to see minutes from him early as well as sophomore Jamison Deyer and freshman Carter Pleiman.”
Powell said Anna, Jackson Center and Fort Loramie will be at the top of the conference.
“Watch out for Fairlawn,” Powell said “I believe they are the sleeper team in the conference this year.”
Fairlawn looking for breakout year
With Fairlawn returning all of its starters, the Jets are looking to have a breakout year after finishing 12-12 overall and 3-9 in SCAL play last season.
The Jets will be led by first-year coach Brad Francis, who takes over for Justin Tidwell. Francis, a longtime Russia assistant under Paul Bremigan, coached at New Bremen last year.
“We look to build upon last year,” Francis said. “Our defense will have to improve dramatically if we hope to accomplish lofty goals that we have set for ourselves this season. The (SCAL) is very balanced and will be a great test to see if we are progressing to be the team that we hope to be.
“Consistent, incremental improvement is a must for us this season. Communication and willingness to win every possession are a must.”
The squad, which was 1-0 entering a game against Botkins on Friday, returns its top two scorers in junior brothers Ashton and Skyler Piper. Ashton Piper, a 6-3 forward, averaged 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game last season. Skyler Piper, a 6-3 forward, averaged 15.7 points and 1.7 steals.
Other returning starters are 6-3 senior forward Isaac Ambos, 5-10 junior guard Drew Maddy and 6-0 sophomore guard Dominic Davis. The squad also has two other returning letterwinners in 6-3 junior forward Jackson Jones and 5-10 junior guard Kyle Peters.
“We have several very athletic players and hope to be very deep if they can all realize playing as a true team is instrumental to our success,” Francis said.
Francis said key newcomers are senior forward Jonah Brautigam, junior forward James Cotterman and junior center Garhett Keener. He said the league race is wide open.
Russia will be made mostly of new players
With just two players returning off last season’s 16-9 squad, Russia will be looking for newcomers to help the team finish with a winning record for the seventh consecutive year.
“While we don’t have a lot of varsity experience, we do have a total of eight seniors, and they are hungry and determined to have a successful year,” Russia second-year coach Dave Borchers said. “They’ve really been setting the tone for us so far.
“We’ll play a lot of man-to-man defense and spread the ball around on offense. We don’t have much height, so we’re really going to have to work hard on the boards. We look forward to the strong competition we’ll have in the SCAL this year.”
The squad, which is off to a 1-3 start, has two big pieces back in seniors Mason and Adam Dapore. Mason Dapore, a 5-11 guard, averaged 11 points, 2.7 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game last year.
“Mason is a two-year starting point guard who can score and distribute the ball equally well, and we’ll look to him to get us going offensively,” Borchers said. “Adam Dapore is just getting back from injury and he works very hard on both ends of the court.”
Key newcomers according to Borchers are senior guards Dawson Luthman and Caleb Monnin, senior forward Ajay Seger, sophomore forward Grant Saunders and freshman forward Xavier Philpot.
“Dawson is an offensive threat who has been playing well so far,” Borchers said. “Caleb is a physical player who makes good decisions with the ball. Ajay is a battler in the post and plays with a lot of energy. Grant is an athletic player who is learning the post position in a hurry. Xavier does a lot of things well all over the court.”
Borchers said Anna is the favorite to win the league and said Jackson Center will also be near the top of the standings. He also said Botkins, Fairlawn and Fort Loramie will battle for positions near the top of the standings.
Houston looks to improve
Houston finished in last place in the SCAL last season and 7-16 overall and will try to improve with a new group of players.
“We are going to be very young and inexperienced this season,” Houston third-year coach Mark Platfoot said. “… We will have to quickly adapt to the pace and physicality of Shelby County League basketball. The team has been working extremely hard during the offseason and early on in the season. We are really emphasizing competing every single play.
“We are not real big so we will have to be very aggressive rebounding. I could not be more proud of how the team has been working together and has bought in to being great teammates.”
The Wildcats, which were 1-2 entering a game at Fort Loramie on Friday, have two returning players from last year’s team in senior guards Brennan Arnold and Adam Winner. Winner averaged 5.9 points per game while Arnold averaged 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
“Brennan is entering his third varsity season and will be counted on a lot to help us be successful,” Platfoot said. “Brennan is a very good point guard with a great feel for the game. He has really been developing as a leader and I am super excited to see how he plays this year.
“Adam Winner is entering his second varsity season and last year as a junior he came off the bench and really helped us. Adam works as hard as any player that I have been around. He is also a player that can do a little bit of everything.”
Key newcomers include junior guard Wyatt Kunk, sophomore forwards Jake Leist and Xaviar Balensiefer, sophomore guard Luke Ryan and freshman guard Luke Beaver.
“Wyatt is going to be able help us a lot on defense and rebounding,” Platfoot said. “Jake has really been coming along nicely and I think he has a really bright future. He will be counted on to give us a post presence and rebound. Luke is a sophomore guard with a high skill set that can help bring the ball up the floor and attack off the dribble.
“Xaviar can knock down outside jump shots and score around the basket. Luke will also be counted on to play good defense and take care of the basketball.”
Platfoot said Anna, Jackson Center, Fort Loramie, Botkins and Fairlawn will challenge for the SCAL title.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.