High School Sports Blog
Basketball Season Preview
By, Nick Vlietstra
Another year and the SMAC is once again full of talent. The stronger side of the conference will be the West with Kalamazoo Central, Benton Harbor, and Stevensville Lakeshore who are all perennial powers. Still you can’t forget about teams like Niles who were district champs last year, and St. Joseph who always seems to put competitive teams on the court.
The past successes of Kalamazoo Central are well known, and I would say they will continue to be one of the favorites this season. It will be interesting to see how they transition out of the Mike Thomas regime and into the Ramsey Nichols era. Central has had a lot of talent for many years, but Mike Thomas was the only one who was able to do great things with that talent. Nichols certainly has some big shoes to fill.
Also in this division you see Stevensville Lakeshore who made a run to the state finals in class B last season before falling to Lansing Sexton. They won 24 games last season and did beat Kalamazoo Central in one of their two meetings. It would come as no surprise to see them at the top of the division at the end of the season. St. Joseph is coming off a season where they finished in the middle of the pack but they also return a lot of talent. Top scorer Jared Kuntz is back, and he will get help on the inside from Junior center Michael Riemland who was one of the team’s top scorers as a Sophomore last season. Niles was the team that actually made it out of the tough district which included Kalamazoo Central and Loy Norrix. They won 19 games before falling to Okemos in the regional.
Mattawan has some athletes to work with, but they will really be hurt by the loss of two four year varsity players Zach Cornish and Thomas Hoff. The two combined to average almost 28 ppg last season which was over half of the team’s ppg. Both Portage schools are starting new times with official new head coaches. Darryl Blasingame took over Portage Central midway through last season, led the Mustangs to a 5-9 record, and was then named the head coach following the season. They also lost a lot of offense to graduation. Portage Northern now has Jim Horn at the controls of the program. He may find it to be tough sledding early on. The Huskies didn’t have a player average double figures last season, and the top two scorers are gone.
While the East is not as strong there’s still plenty of quality teams on that side. Loy Norrix has the star of the conference in Bishop Robinson, and the Knights are the East defending champs. Sturgis is coming off a season where they won 17 regular season games and Gull Lake didn’t seem out of place at all in their first year in the league finishing third and winning 16 in the regular season. Also don’t forget about Battle Creek Central who finished around .500 last season, but certainly could be considered a dark horse in this division.
Loy Norrix will again be the favorite to win this division. Their star, Bishop Robinson, is coming off a season where he scored 25 ppg. He combines his talents with running mate Tony Boykins who averaged over 16 ppg last season making them the best 1-2 tandem in the SMAC. You can’t discount a team like Sturgis. The Trojans have won district titles in three out of four years, and won 20 game last year. They lost some key talent and will be young, but still plenty talented. Gull Lake has been a great power for years now, but the loss of a three year starting point guard Xavier Prather will hurt. They will lean heavily on Senior Dean Kolstad who led the Blue Devils in scoring at 16 ppg, along with Junior center Odell Miller who was a key member off the bench last season.
The league will be split into divisions this season, and it will make for some entertaining action. They have also added a Championship game at the end of the season between the winner of each division. The stronger Division will be the East with Otsego, Paw Paw and Vicksburg both full of young talent. Three new teams will give the West some added talent. Dowagiac, South Haven and Edwardsburg could all take a run at the top spot in that division.
Otsego may have lost Jared Klein to Western Michigan, but this team is still full of talent. They are coming off a Wolverine Championship season, and are primed to do a ton of damage for at least the next three years. They will be young with a very strong Junior class and at least three Sophomores playing big minutes. The Dugan brothers will make for a huge front line with both measuring over 6’6”. They may lose a few games this season, but looking forward, this is a team that is going to be fun to watch grow up over the next three years. Paw Paw is coming off a 13 win season, but is primed for more this year. They too have a lot of young talent, with a lot of very fine outside shooters. Vicksburg will also look to their youth with four very talented sophomores looking to lend a hand to a good Senior class. Sharpshooter Abe Barwegen returns for his Senior season after averaging 19 ppg as a Junior last year, and will be helped out by Colin McCaw who added over 9 ppg last season.
Plainwell head coach Dan Klein will look to move his program forward after the departure of his top two scorers. Four year varsity point guard Justin DeBruyne and the top big man in the league Jack Conklin have graduated. Tyler White is coming back to the Trojans after being injured all of last season, and he will fill in the void in the middle. Comstock will look to a big senior class this season. They will lean heavily on Bobby Brinkert as they also graduated their top two scorers in Shaquan Jones and Jalen Lamar.
There may have been a good discussion about the top player in the league last season between Klein and Dontel Highsmith, but with Klein now gone that discussion is over. Highsmith has been very impressive and Dowagiac will go as far as he can take them. He has already committed to play next year at Northern Illinois. He averaged over 27 ppg last season leading the Chieftains to a 16 win season. It also ended in a disappointing way falling in the second game of districts. South Haven is coming off an up and down season but one that finished with their second straight district title. It was the second straight year that they weren’t considered the favorites to win the title but won it anyway. They return a lot of scoring including leading scoring Brian Harris. Edwardsburg may be new, and they might not be the favorites, but I wouldn’t toss them out of the discussion. They have had some good teams in the past, and certainly have talent to do damage in their new league.
The KVA will be a battle for the top again with Schoolcraft going in as the odds on favorite. Schoolcraft has the league’s top player in Luke Ryskamp who will be taking his talents to Grand Valley State next year. He has been tormenting opposing teams over his last four years with his long, lanky and sometimes unorthodox play. Whatever you want to call it, it works for him as he averaged close to 23 ppg last season.
Schoolcraft won’t be the only team at the top, as they should get some competition from Hackett, Kalamazoo Christian, Olivet, Parchment and Pennfield. It should make for a very interesting season with these teams battling every night. You could make an argument for any of those next five teams doing something good this year. I think Hackett could have a very nice season. They won’t be tall, but they will be athletic and have a lot of shooters. They also have a new coach as Todd Meert takes over the Irish program. Kalamazoo Christian had a very nice bounce back season last year winning 14 games. The talent is still not back to where it was about four years ago, but Jerry Mastenbrook certainly has something to work with. I think their inside size could give teams trouble this year. Parchment has Larry Bailey back this season who will be working with a very good Junior class. The Panthers are trying to recover after winning only five games last season. Olivet is always a mystery, mostly because they can be Jekyll and Hyde home and away. Their hectic style always gives other teams plenty to prepare for. Pennfield always is competitive and once again they have talent to work with. The question will be whether they can put it all together this year.
Delton is the defending champs of the league, but their great senior class has left and there wasn’t a whole lot left in the cupboard. Former Pennfield standout Steve Mikinis is now running the show in Delton after the departure of Ryan Murray. Galesburg-Augusta has been building around one class for a few years now, led by Jordan Born. Born averaged 16 ppg last season and his strong Junior class will continue to look toward improvement on their seven win season last year.
What makes this conference fun to watch is the turn over from year to year. It seems like it always goes in two year spurts too. When you look back you see Fennville was at the top for two years, and prior to that it was Lawrence. Now it looks like Bloomingdale will have the same opportunity for a two year run. The Cardinals won 22 games last year and advanced to the regional final. They now return six seniors from that team. It won’t be only Bloomingdale at the top of the North Division though. Bangor has a strong team returning that certainly could make a run for the top of the division. Don’t discount Gobles either as the Tigers won 10 games a year ago with a lot of Juniors who are now all Seniors.
The weaker of the two divisions will be in the South. Decatur and Watervliet can be considered the two favorites, but they are also the only two teams who finished with winning records in the division last year. Decatur won 14 games last year and will lean on the Cevern brothers (Tommy and Tim) again this season.
Climax Scotts is once again going to be a team at the top of the SCAA. Some other schools are starting to catch up to the Panthers, but they continue to be the top athletics school in the conference. That should continue again this season as the Panthers return at team that did not lose in conference last year. I am interested to see how they fare in their season opening game against Albion. They are taking a big step up in competition, which they don’t do often.
In the St. Joe Valley, White Pigeon has been the top team for the last three years and I would look for that to continue this year. There were some coaching changes in the league, but the Chiefs have the size and the athletes to be the top team again this year. Other teams are going to find it hard to compete inside when White Pigeon has three players at 6’4” or taller.