Southwest Livingston boys will try to fend off Mendon: Northwestern to retain CLAA crown. Norborne solid favorite in CLAA's girls race. Meadville boys expected to be very good.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

With all C-T-area teams except both Southwest Livingston squads and the Hamilton boys having a game under their respective belts, the 2018-19 high school basketball season upshifts into second gear this week with more than half of the teams involved in their initial regular-season tournaments.
The Northwestern Invitational at Mendon (bracket appeared in Friday’s print edition) is 75-percent populated with area clubs and another three schools comprise nearly half the field of the Gallatin Invitational.
As the season begins to accelerate, while some veteran area standouts of recent years now are departed through graduation, 13 all-district players and a whopping 35 who gained some level of all-conference recognition across a handful of regional league are back in uniform, looking to carry their teams to high regular-season and postseason finishes.
Beyond the number of standouts who remain at area coaches’ disposal, more than a few of the 30 area clubs return either intact from a year ago or minus only one player, making enhanced results likely.
With the extensive number of Class 1 schools, with their small enrollment numbers, in the area, incoming freshmen always provide the potential for unexpected significant impact that can elevate a school beyond what its returning talent might suggest.
Sorting through the area roundball scene:
CLAA
A year ago, Southwest Livingston made historic undefeated runs through the 8-games Carroll-Livingston Activity Association Conference, the first sweep in the loop since Hale did it in 2003-04. The Ludlow-based team’s first sweep since 1973-74 was the first time it was done in perfect fashion since Meadville’s 2000-01 7-0 showings.
Despite the graduation of three starters, Southwest’s boys, who had not been CLAA regular-season champs since 1987-88, should be in the thick of this season’s race with skilled, 6’5” junior Mack Anderson, last year’s league most valuable player and a Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association all-district choice, still around after averaging a strong double-double in points and rebounds in 2017-18.
The Wildcats also have all-conference guard Wyatt Maddux back, as well as another senior, Nate Reith, who was extensively used as a reserve.
SLHS’ Lady Wildcats’ exceptional success the past decade (five shared or outright league titles and multiple district championships) has seen a continuum of proven holdover talent being mixed with newcomers who then become a new core.
With the departure of multi-year All-Staters Kaylie Campbell and Kortlyn Rounkles, however, that chain looks to have at least a 1-year break. With nary a returning starter, the Lady Wildcats will be short on experience and size and probably headed to their lowest finish in the league at least 10 years.
On the other hand, the CLAA’s other girls’ power of recent vintage – Norborne – almost certainly will be in contention again, probably wearing the favorite’s mantle, in fact, even with a new head coach.
On the heels of a trip to the Class 1 state quarterfinals, veteran NHS coach Michael Lock has departed the bench (he’s still athletics director), replaced by Troy Malone, and left behind a well-stocked cupboard, highlighted by the area’s only returning All-State player.
Skilled, strong, and sizable, 5’10” junior Kennadie Crowe would have to be the preseason betting choice for league MVP.
Even with fellow all-conference and all-district and former All-State guard Madison Brown graduated after being a part of the Lady Pirates’ current run of four CLAA titles in the past six years, NHS’ girls are well-stocked beyond Crowe with sophomore twin guards Olivia and Kayla Dooley. Olivia was first-team all-conference and Kayla second-team as freshmen with Kayla chosen to the all-defensive squad.
Likely to be nipping at the Lady Pirates’ heels are Hardin-Central’s Lady Bulldogs, last year’s third-place finisher, with district runnersup Hale-Bosworth and Northwestern – both having their entire rosters returning – warranting watching as emerging challengers, and Tina-Avalon likely to remain solid.
Hardin-Central will have a strong 3-piers foundation in senior all-conference/all-district forward Julia Finley and juniors Bella Anderson and Carly Thacker. About 5’10”, like Finley, Thacker was second-team all-conference a year back and Anderson was on the CLAA defensive honors team.
Hale-Bosworth will be in its second season under Clint Heussner’s leadership. With that familiarity, all of its players back, and the return of senior guard Kaitlynn Heussner, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in last year’s second game.
With her added to all-conference first-team Bailey Stephens, second-team all-CLAA Hayes Heussner, and 5’10” Trinity Harris – all seniors, along with a handful of other experienced returnees and the Lady Cardinals should approach or better last year’s 18-9 ledger.
Northwestern’s Ryan Potter has back last year’s starting lineup, too, led by first-team all-league Kelsie Speichinger (23 points, 7 rebounds per game as a junior) and all-CLAA defender Georganne Zahner (18 points, 8 rebounds), a junior. A hindrance to enhancing last year’s 11-16 record will be a lack of numbers with only seven players again this winter.
Tina-Avalon went 15-11 last year, including a 4-3 league mark, and, with all-CLAA first-team senior forward Hannah Colliver and second-team sophomore guard Haley Rucker back, projects to be in that neighborhood or better this season, if the Lady Dragons’ season-opening win over Braymer is an indication.
The other three girls’ teams combined for only 13 wins a year ago and neighbors Keytesville and Brunswick each have a new head coach.
Brunswick should be better, coach Scott Singleton notes, since it returns all of its starters from its 3-wins club, including MSSA central all-district forward Abby Dobbins, a 5’7” junior. Sophomore guard Addi Riley shows some offensive promise.
Keytesville, which won nine times a year ago, will be guided by Frank Grisamore, but has graduated top (all-district, CLAA first-team and all-defense) player Mylie Schupback, among others.
Breckenridge did net a girls’ win last year with its 5-players squad and will battle the numbers problem for both genders again.
While Southwest Livingston’s boys have the conference’s physically-most-impressive player in Anderson, as well as Maddux, fending off Northwestern and its curly-haired dynamic duo of guards Wade Adams and Jaden Humphrey will be difficult.
Going 18-10 overall last year, including beating Southwest in the CLAA Tournament  semifinals en route to taking the title behind tourney MVP Adams, the Eagles have two other starters – including all-league second-team pick Ryan Fisher – back, as well as sophomore Hunter Stockwell. Their biggest shortcoming is the lack of a proven big man, but the torrid pace at which they play tests bigger foes.
Last year’s CLAA regular-season and tournament runnerup, Brunswick, has a new coach for its boys’ team, too, but Colton Boyd’s first Wildcats team will be challenged by its lack of height, now that 6’5” all-leaguer Reece Winn is graduated. Also departed is all-CLAA first-team pick A.J. Worley. Third-year starting guard Garland Theus returns for his senior year, but doesn’t have a lot around him, so Brunswick should sag in the standings.
Keytesville, which shared third place in the loop with Northwestern last year, should have a say in the title chase again, led by its own 1-2 tandem of juniors guard Austin McKinstry and 6’1” power forward Evan Craig. If new head coach Michael Draper can coax more consistency from junior Garrett Calvert and fit another piece or two around those three, the Tigers could match or surpass their 16-10 mark of a season ago.
This year’s boys’ “sleeper” team in the CLAA could be Hale-Bosworth. The Cardinals finished at .500 in the loop and just under it overall a year back and return all-conference first-team guard Colton Harris and second-teamer Ty Berger as only juniors, along with honorable mentionee Jaeden Sears as a sophomore. Matching up with a team with height could be their biggest challenge.
The rest of the conference’s boys’ team look like a mish-mash, since none have any returning all-conference players.
Junior Kysor Hughes of Hardin-Central is expected by Bulldogs coach Kirk Thacker to emerge as a top-drawer player, but doesn’t have much to go with him. Thacker believes more talent could become available in a couple of years.
Norborne, with Ken Brown stepping in at the boys’ helm, graduated its best players from a 6-wins team.
Tina-Avalon won only three games a year ago, but does have three starters back as juniors. Like most other teams in the conference, the Dragons are height-challenged.
NON-CLAA
Among the six non-CLAA schools covered by the C-T, the highest ceiling appears to belong to the Meadville Eagles.
With lanky all-Tri-County Conference and MSSA northeast all-district senior Dillon Seckington and second-team all-TCC guards Jordan Schmitz and Dominik Gannan as the foundational pieces, the MHS boys should crack the 20-wins level yet again. Add in Parker Burton, a junior classmate of Gannan and factor in the inevitable helpful youngster the Eagles always seem to have emerge and they should take a run at regaining the conference title after being second last year and, surprisingly, failing to reach the district-championship game.
Neighbor Linn County could make its own noise in the Tri-County boys’ race, thanks to all-league first-team scoring ace Jase White. Honorable mentionees Chadley Waltz and Michael Okane also are back from a Mustangs squad that produced 17 wins last season and played for a Class 1 district crown.
Elsewhere on the boys’ scene, Hamilton could face a precipitous drop after an 18-9 year with star LaTroy Harper graduated. Cale Whitt, also a first-team all-KCI Conference choice like Harper, is back as a 6’3” forward, but head coach Justin Joiner, elevated from assistant when Rick Ross slid from the bench into the athletics director’s chair, has to find some reliable scoring to replace Harper.
Polo finished just under .500 last year, but graduated clearly its best player in all-Grand River Conference-East first-teamer James Fleener. Jared Robison, a 6’3” senior, was a second-team all-GRCE choice and new coach Morgan Dickson will have returning senior starters James Blystone and Jaxon Umbaugh and junior Joe Beaver to supplement him. Umbaugh and Beaver bring strong defensive skills to the task, Dickson notes. The Panthers will have reasonably good height in their starting five with 6’3” Dylan Blystone rounding out a quintet that has four players at either 6’3” or 6’2”.
“We could be very good,” if the potential scoring balance materializes. None of this year’s PHS players averaged scoring in dual digits a year ago. Robison just missed at 9.7 points a night with 4.6 rebounds.
Braymer, long a strong boys’ program, sagged all the way to 10-16 last year, but did get off on the right foot this year with last week’s debut win over Tina-Avalon.
Also with a new head coach in Bob Vermillion, last year’s assistant, the Bobcats graduated several and will look to build around senior Keaton O’Dell, an honorable mention all-conference choice last season. Another 12th grader, Hunter Heussner, shows early indications of having offensive upside.
After only two wins two years ago and three last year, it would not take much for the Jamesport: Tri-County boys to be better, but even that could prove challenging.
The girls’ scene finds Meadville under new leadership from former Southwest Livingston player Caitlin Cramer and still struggling to get many bodies on the floor. The new coach has only seven players to work with, but, led by returning all-TCC and all-northeast district sophomore guard Kiera Holcer, they gave a solid account of themselves in a narrow, season-opening loss to Glasgow.
Freshman guard Maggie McLain looks like she might help shoulder some of the scoring load, which K. Holcer (17 points per game) largely carried alone last year. Sophomore Krysta Meyers did average seven points and five rebounds last year and returns as a starter with juniors Audrey Holcer and McKenna Lambert.
“The girls put in time on the court this summer, learning a new offense and defense,” Cramer comments. “… I’m excited to see how our returnees have grown in their skills, confidence, and maturity” in the aftermath of a 6-18 mark a season ago.
Hamilton’s girls got better and better as last season went along and ended up going all the way to the state quarterfinals, finishing 22-8.
Head coach Jordan Richman still has all-KCI first-team star guard Nora Ford, only a junior, to “stir the drink” for his squad and sophomore Graycen Prothero returns, too. In addition, junior Jessica Richman, the coach’s 5’10” kid sister, looks to have boosted her game as she moves into a starting role.
Two other juniors, Ali Trosper and Atie Allsup, are rounding out the starting lineup early on with sophomore Somers Finch offering some scoring potential off the bench.
“We have a solid core returning,” the Lady Hornets coach assesses, adding he believes the squad capable of competing for a KCI Conference title this season.
Polo’s girls sank to 9-16 last year, but return all-GRCE second-team selection Shelby Copeland, a 5’9” senior who averaged 7.4 points and 8.2 rebounds in 2017-18. Also back for long-time PHS coach Greg Keith are starters Taylor Wagner and Kelly Baldon, each of whom scored five points a game last season.
With half of the 14 girls out for the team being freshmen, the coach observes, “Many girls will be asked to fill roles earlier, rather than later, in their careers. … Our conference, non-con, and tournament schedules will create a significant uphill battle.”
Jamesport: Tri-County’s Lady Mustangs made big strides for coach Jeremy Slaughter last winter, zooming up to nine wins. With only two seniors on last year’s roster, this year’s team, including 2-times second-team all-Harrison-Daviess Conference selection Jaden Almond as a senior, could keep the needle pointing north.
Braymer’s Lady ’Cats have all-northwest district, all-GRC West first-team star Jasmine Taylor back for her junior year, but need to develop someone to buttress her. The top candidate at present is another good overall athlete, Taylor Francis, but more than that likely will be needed to tip the scales over to a winning mark after the team went 13-13 in Angie Stone’s first year as head coach.
Linn County’s girls had a unsurprising struggling season last year, winning eight game, and graduated their best player (Blair Buswell). However, she is the only loss off last year’s squad.
Leading the Lady Mustangs’ returning group is all-TCC honorable mentionee Madison Livingston, a junior.