Boys prep hoops: NECC PREVIEW

Churubusco's Brayton Bonar posts up during a Sectional game last season. (Photo by Justin Kenny of news-sentinel.com)
Ryan Abbott, Eastside coach
Chris Paul, Churubusco coach

When Chris Paul took over as the varsity boy’s basketball coach at Churubusco last season following a decade as the head women’s coach at Fort Wayne, he wasn’t sure as to what to expect exactly.

He found out quickly that the Northeast Corner Conference is very competitive league filled with good players, coaches and teams.

“It was a little bit of an eye-opener,” Paul told News-Sentinel.com recently. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Paul and his team found out quickly just what the NECC holds for every league member each week.

The Eagles were just a week into the 2016-17 season when Westview came to Churubusco and walloped Paul’s guys 82-60. And that was with a group that started four sophomores and a freshman.

“I was super impressed,” Paul said. “I was super impressed with a couple of things: the following of fans and the quality of coaching.”

“What I found out, very quickly, is you’re not competing against a team, you’re competing against a town. The whole town is there.”

Paul got his Eagles on the right track and finished with 17 wins and a IHSAA Class 2A Sectional championship, while Churubusco was one of five teams that either shared a part of the NECC title or were just a game out of winning the league.

“I felt the guys (in the NECC) were really coached up,” Paul said. “They were running good systems, there was good structure, and there was good discipline. It wasn’t just ‘Hey, throw the ball out and let’s go.’ They were coming off a lot of staggers (screens), a lot of back screens and you had to make sure you knew what you were doing, otherwise they were going to pick you apart.”

‘Busco is expected to back in the NECC hunt again, but the dilemma for Paul is a lot of other coaches feel the same about there squads.

“I was just very, very impressed,” Paul said. “It is a very solid conference.”

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. WESTVIEW

As Paul noted, the coaching in the NECC is tremendous and no coach does a better job than veteran Warriors coach Rob Yoder.

Yoder’s team started four sophomores and a freshman last year, but still shared the league title with Eastside after winning 17 games.

Under Yoder’s guidance, the Warriors have won almost 230 games in 15 seasons, including seven sectionals, three regionals and a semistate title.

The Warriors have two double-figure scorers returning in junior guard Elijah Gum-Hales (6-foot-3, 16 points and five assists per game) and sophomore guard Charlie Yoder (6-foot-2, 10 points per game), as well as junior forward Cody Collyer (6-foot-4, nine points per game).

Also back are junior center Nic Rensberger (6-foot-4, six points and four rebounds per game) and junior forwarcd Josh Hostetler (6-foot-1, five points per game).

Seniors looking to contribute are Kenton Weaver (5-foot-9 guard), Sam Sharp (6-foot-1, center), and Jeremiah Hostetler (5-foot-8 guard).

2. ANGOLA

The Hornets have won 44 games and a IHSAA Class 3A Sectional title over the past two years and it is easy to see as to why.

Angola defends.

Veteran coach Ed Bentley’s squad allowed less than 39 points per gae a season ago by its opponents, which was far and away the best in the league.

Eastside averaged nearly 54 points per game en route to its NECC championship, but facing Angola on the Blazers’ home court, Eastside had to fight, scratch and claw its way to a 36-34 win late last season.

“Angola is always a hard-nosed tough team,” Eastside coach Ryan Abbott said.

3. FAIRFIELD

The Falcons haven’t had a losing season in the past four years under veteran coach Troy Beachy and they shouldn’t expect to this season either.

Fairfield struggled at times last year, but played well in the end and came away with an IHSAA Class #A Sectional championship, which was the program’s first since 2010.

The Falcons have a really good player returning in 6-foot senior guard Luke Stephens.

“I think Fairfield may have the best player in the league in Luke Stephens,” Paul said.

Stephens averaged nearly 17 points per game, as well as three assists and four rebounds.

He will be joined by 6-foot-2 senior Shandon Miller, who averaged over 10 points and nearly seven boards as a junior.

Also back to help on the glass is 6-foot-3 junior Cordell Hofer, who averaged nine points and four rebounds per game.

Hofer shot 52 percent from the floor last season, while Stephens drained 36 3-point shots.

“Fairfield is very, very, very good,” Eastside coach Ryan Abbott said. “Troy Beachy does a phenomenal job there.”

4. LAKELAND

It has been six seasons since the Lakers have enjoyed a winning season, but they do have a couple of nice pieces returning that could change that this winter.

Senior guard Cameron Bontrager opened last year by dropping 35 on East Noble and late in the season he scored on Northridge, so the kid can fill it up.

The 5-foot-11 shooter averaged nearly 17 points per game and finished the season with a team-best 53 3-pointers.

Bontrager will be joined by classmate and double-figure scorer Cole Harp (6-foot-1), who scored over 12 points per game and pulled down nearly four rebounds per game.

Senior Jeff Patrick (6-foot) and junior Jashaun Poole both averaged over 20 minutes per game a year ago, so first-year coach Nick Burlingame will be counting on them again.

Lakeland struggled to an eight-win season last year, but were just a four-overtime loss against Northridge away from finishing the year 7-5 in their last 12 games.

5. EASTSIDE

The Blazers have made a methodical climb under veteran coach Abbott.

After guiding the program to nine wins in his first season, Eastside has climbed from 13 wins (twice) to 16 and last year, the Blazers enjoyed a magical 20-win season in which they shared a part of the NECC title with Westview.

“You’re only as good as you’re leadership,” Abbott told News-Sentinel.com recently. “You’ll only go as far as your leaders will take you. We’ve been fortunate that each senior class has kind of passed the torch, if you will, and the next group of seniors has continued to raise the bar.”

That “next group of seniors” will include guards Caleb Ballentine (6-foot) and Aaron Dean (5-foot-10).

“We had a special group of leaders last year,” Abbott said, “who were very good basketball players. They took (the leadership) from a previous group and took it to a new level and we were able to have a special season.”

“I’m excited to see where Aaron and Caleb can take us.”

Ballentine averaged almost 10 points per game to go with four rebounds and three assists, while Dean chipped in eight points, four assists and three boards.

Abbott is also intrigued by the potential of 6-foot-3 senior forward Andrew Steffen, who will be in a much more significant role this season after backing up 15-point-per-game scorer Jacob Thompson.

“We have some players in our program that no one has heard of, that can have kind of a coming out party,” Abbott said. “Andrew Steffen is going to be our big man this year. He could have potentially contributed for a lot of teams in our area, but it was a tough spot for him to be in.”

Another newcomer that has potential long-term is 6-foot-1 freshman wing Phoenix Smythe.

“We’re hoping to be in the (NECC) mix,” Abbott said.

6. CENTRAL NOBLE

Cougar coach John Bodey moved over from Garrett High School last season and immediately made an impact in Albion.

Central Noble won 14 games, which was the most in 15 years for the program.

Bodey graduated over 30 points per game in Reeve Zolman and Mason Smith, but he does have a number of players returning from a IHSAA Class 2A Sectional championship squad that closed the year by winning 12 of its final 18 games.

Junior forward Ridley Zolman (6-foot-3) averaged nearly eight points per game a year ago, as well as four rebounds per game. He also shot 48 percent from 3-point range, so he can stretch any defense.

Zolman will be joined along the baseline by senior Trey Phillips (6-foot-2), who pulled down eight boards per game to go with over sox points scored each night.

Senior guard Zach Brazel (5-foot-10), junior guard Jacob Bruse (5-foot-11), and sophomore guard Lucas Deck (5-foot-11) are also key players back for Bodey.

7. CHURUBUSCO

Like Central Noble, Churubusco graduated a ton of offense (50-plus points per game) from a sectional-winning squad.

“We’re going to be very, very young,” Paul said.

But on a positive note, the Eagles have a lot of capable players, Paul explained.

“We could go,” Paul said, “at times, maybe 10, 11 deep. But depending on the time, we could have three freshmen on the floor at one time.”

Those youngsters include the coach’s son, 5-foot-10 guard Jackson Paul, as well as Zane Burke (6-foot-2 forward) and Luke McClure (5-foot-10 guard).

Those players will join seniors Dean Staley (6-foot-4) and Garrett Horn (6-foot), as well as junior Brayton Bonar (6-foot-1).

“At the high school level,” Paul said, “there is a big difference between 15 and 18 years old. The interesting part is, on Friday night, I feel like we could look really, really good, and then on Saturday night we could look really bad.”

The Eagles are also getting an infusion in athleticism from ‘Busco quarterback Tom Richards, who didn’t play last season, but Paul welcomes the fact that he coaches the basketball team at a football-rich school.

“I think that it is great,” Paul said, “There is something about having football players, because they are tough.”

They will need to be if ‘Busco hopes to build on last year’s 17-win season.

Paul opened his career with the Eagles with a 2-4 record, but closed the season by winning 15 of his final 20 games.

“They’re athletic,” Paul said of this group, “we’ll play fast, I think that it will be a fun style to watch and I am really looking forward to it.”

8. WEST NOBLE

The good news for Charger basketball fans is the fact that their favorite team had its most wins in three seasons.

The downside to that is West Noble still managed to win just nine of 24 games. However, there is hope for another step forward this season.

Veteran coach Jim Best returns 6-foot-3 junior guard Kolten Peterson, who averaged over 11 points and four rebounds per game.

Peterson connected for 49 3-pointers as a sophomore and will be joined by 6-foot senior guard Mason Stover, who averaged almost nine points per game, but scored in double figures 10 times, including a 20-point outing in a slim win over Lakeland.

9. GARRETT

The Railroaders haven’t had a winning season in three seasons and first-year coach Bryan Leverenz is taking over the program to try to get it back on the right track.

Dillon McCann (6-foot-4 senior forward) should be a key piece in the rebuilding effort, as is Korbyn Yarian (6-foot-5 junior center).

Garrett doesn’t lack size, as Jayden Broadnax (6-foot-4, sophomore wing) and Dane Johnson (6-foot-5 sophomore forward) should contribute.

10. FREMONT

Former Eagle coach John Wysong made a quick and productive splash in Fremont during his 24 months of guiding the basketball program.

Fremont won 30 games over the past two seasons, including a second-place finish in the NECC last year.

Craig Helfrich takes over the program this season and he is going to have to earn his paycheck, as Fremont doesn’t return a varsity starter.

Five players (Nick Beatty, 5-10 junior; Ethan Marten, 6-1 junior; Cole Thomas, 5-11 senior; Tanner Behnfeldt, 6-2, junior; and Jon Buchanan, 6-0 junior) all started on the Eagle junior varsity last year, so they do have some experience.

11. PRAIRIE HEIGHTS

There is little choice for the Panthers other than to improve after winning just a couple of games last year.

Veteran coach Greg Holmes had led Prairie Heights to 29 wins over the previous two seasons, before last year’s collapse.

Holmes does have sophomore Mike Perkins returning after he averaged eight points, four rebounds and a couple of assists as a freshman.

Perkins will be joined by 6-foot-4 senior Cole Harmes, who averaged five points and four boards a year ago.

12. HAMILTON

In the 2000-01 basketball season, Hamilton High coach John Hohnstreiter won 21 games with the Marines and then promptly left.

During the ensuing 16 seasons, eight coaches have struggled to find any semblance of success, as the program has totaled just 51 victories in that span.

Shannon Beard becomes coach number nine to try and build upon what Hohnsteiter miraculously achieved for the tiny school of just 90 students.

Bailey Merritt averaged eight points and four rebounds per game last season and the 5-foot-10 junior is the leading returnee for Beard.

He will be joined by 6-foot-1 sophomore Gavin Pfefferkorn, who scored five points per game.

Merritt scored in double figures in nine of the Marines’ finall 11 games last season.

NECC SUPERLATIVES

MVP: Luke Stephens, Fairfield

Best shooter: Cameron Bontrager, Lakeland

Best post player: Dillon McCann, Garrett

Most versatile: Elijah Gum-Hales, Westview

Best passer: Aaron Dean, Eastside

Best intangibles: Shandon Miller, Fairfield

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