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New-look CHS hoops Hornets seek new scoring sources

With graduation losses, producing points figures as top 2020-21challenge

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2020-21 Chillicothe High School basketball Hornets will open their new season either Tuesday, Nov. 24, at Hamilton, if the host's football season ends this weekend, or against Kearney Tuesday, Dec. 1, in the opening round of the Savannah Invitational Tournament. This season's CHS boys' team will be regrouping after graduating two standouts and another senior starter from its excellent 21-5 squad of a year ago.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — The day of reckoning has arrived for Chillicothe High School’s basketball Hornets. 

For each of the past two seasons, the Hornets have depended very heavily – and with considerable success – on the offensive exploits of two players to generate the bulk of their scoring. Of the 51 games (35 of them victories) the team played the past two campaigns, one of two 2020 graduates – Westley Brandsgaard and C.J. Pfaff – led the club in scoring. That includes a February 2019 contest in which the duo scored all of the Hornets’ points in a victory at St. Joseph: Benton. And even in the one instance out of those 51 when neither was the leading scorer, the player who did pace the team that night was one of their classmates.

Thus, whenever the Hornets tip off their 2020-21 campaign – scheduled to be this coming Tuesday (Nov. 24) at Hamilton, but, depending on COVID-19 and/or Hamilton’s football team, potentially not until a week after that when they’re slated to take on Kearney in the opening round of the Savannah Invitational Tournament, one of their players will have a brand-new experience – leading the CHS varsity in scoring.

While departed starters Pfaff, We. Brandsgaard, and Bradley Riley will be absent, the other 40 percent of the starting lineup from last season’s 21-5 squad are back, along with a couple of extensively-used, young reserves, to form the backbone of this year’s team.

The most-veteran member of this year’s team will be senior point guard Mason Baxter, a third-year starter. Very athletic, quick, and a very good jumper for his 5’10” stature, his previous forte has been defense, but for this year’s club to not slip too far from last year or the year before (14-11 record), he’ll be needed to become a more-prolific and reliable scorer.

He averaged only 4.1 points per game last season, but that effectively was as the team’s No. 5 scoring option. While his shooting percentages were respectable (35% from 3-points range and 47% inside the arc), those came with opponents heavily focused on trying to deny We. Brandsgaard and Pfaff – the former voted All-State and the latter arguably just as deserving of that honor.

The other returning starter is another senior, Hayden Simmer. At 6’2”, with long arms, he tends to play a little taller than that and will need to, considering the four graduates from last year’ Hornets all stood 6’3” or taller and none of this year’s roster members are listed as taller than 6’3”. 

Simmer, who often shared time with substitutes last year, averaged 5.8 points and three rebounds a contest as a junior and shot 35% from 3-points land. However, as with Baxter, he’ll likely find fewer wide-open looks outside the arc with opponents no longer having to keep track of Riley, Pfaff, or We. Brandsgaard. Having added a bit of additional bulk and strength to his lanky frame, Simmer will need to be able to mix it up under the boards and in the paint some for the team to have success. He has shown an ability to hit mid-range jumpers, which could be an integral part of his scoring repertoire.

Nearly all the rest of this year’s Hornets are underclassmen, with the most experienced of them being three sophomores, two of whom saw lots of prime-time playing time as freshmen, albeit without significant statistical numbers.

Used the most last year was 6’2”guard Griff Bonderer, one of the squads best overall athletes, who showed flashes of offensive promise and generally good court sense, although he scored only 2.6 points while appearing in all 26 contests.

He shot 52 percent from 2-points distance as a frosh, but under 25 percent outside the arc, a number which figures to improve. With his decent height and feel for the game, he grabbed a couple of rebounds a game in his shared time last year and probably will need to at least double that this year to help the team max out its potential.

Fellow sophomore Cayden Potter was used less frequently than Bonderer last year, but still got into 20 games as a post player. Despite standing only 6’2”, he’ll be called on to be one of this year’s “bangers” around the blocks.

The third sophomore who got into more than a little action as a ninth grader is 6’2” Wyatt Brandsgaard, but he appeared in only 16 contests and, like Potter, averaged less than a point per contest.

Not as polished early as his older brother, Wy. Brandsgaard showed encouraging signs of improvement in quickness, mobility, and self-confidence as a full-time starter during the just-ended soccer season. Hornets coaches surely hope that he can blossom as he steps out of his graduated brother’s considerable shadow.

Helping bolster the Hornets’ experience reservoir this season will be 5’9” senior guard Eli Cross. He did not play last year after seeing a good bit of time, including three starts, as a guard the first half of his sophomore season.

Only two others with any varsity experience at all – 5’9” junior guard Kyle Young and 6’2” sophomore Landon Winder – are available to Tim Cool in his 10th season at the CHS helm. Neither played any significant amount of minutes last year.

With the previously-noted departure of all of last season’s tallest Hornets, 6’3” junior Cameron Fleener, 6’3” freshman James Mathew, and Winder will be needed to help supply respite for the starters and depth in foul-trouble situations. For them, getting as many games played as possible will be critical for getting them seasoned for the late-season Midland Empire Conference battles.

Also having earned spots on the varsity for the first time are 6’2” junior Quentin Cranmer and 6’ sophomore Gabe Hansen. Look for them, Mathew, and Young to gain additional playing experience in junior-varsity contests, as well.

Asked for the positives he’s seen from the team during preseason practices and last Monday’s intrasquad scrimmage, Cool shared, “Right now, our most solid area is the competitive drive our guys have. They compete every day and are improving because of it. We need a lot of work on all areas of the game, but are excited to watch our guys grow and learn. 

“We are seeing improvement from everyone. They are working hard on the fundamentals of the game, as well as building their stamina through drills, running, and playing in game-like situations. Our practices have been very good and extremely competitive.”

In providing an overarching assessment of the 2020-21 team as it enters the season, the head coach commented, “Our coaching staff (including veteran assistants Tim Cunningham, Canaan Fairley, and Lee Rucker) is very excited about this season. We are seeing a group of young men with a solid understanding of how our program functions. They have a good grasp on the basics of our offenses and defensive principles. They also know the culture of our program and are working hard to keep it strong. 

“We really like our team. The older players are leading and the younger players are following that leadership. Another positive we are seeing is how the players have back bigger, faster, and stronger. 

“We are extremely proud of our guys and look forward to watching them compete and grow closer as a basketball family.”

Schedule-wise, the most notable alteration from last year is that the CHS boys have shifted one tournament. They've departed the Bishop LeBlond Holiday Classic, in which they've played between Christmas and New Year's for most of Cool's tenure, in favor of the mid-January Lawson Invitational.

Additionally, with this week's announcement of the cancellation of the North Central Missouri College Foundation's "High School Holiday Hoops" event around the holidays, the games the Hornets and Lady Hornets were to have played there already have been replaced with a Feb. 1 home game against Lathrop. For the boys, that will give them a seventh home game (if all are played); for the girls, it adds a sixth home appearance. Prior to that addition, the Hornets would have had only one home game in a 6-weeks stretch from early January through mid-February.

Chillicothe's boys again will face Trenton, Kirksville, Marshall, Lawson, and Macon in non-conference outings and they'll join the girls in hosting East Buchanan Jan. 21. The Hornets were to have visited "East Buck" last February, but that was weathered out.

Like the Lady Hornets, the boys will have only two of their seven Midland Empire Conference games at home this season, welcoming perennial league champion St. Joseph: Lafayette and Bishop LeBlond.