FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH
Blue Valley North
Fresh off a third-place finish at the 6A state tourney, the Mustangs, who went 21-4, ought to be in the state mix again. Coach Ryan Phifer returns three starters, including senior guard Scott Edwards, who averaged 12 points. Senior swingman Matt McHugh and junior forward Jawan Emery, who is poised for a breakout season, also are back for a deep, talented squad.
Blue Valley Northwest
The Huskies have finished second at state three years in a row, but with Perry Ellis moving on to Kansas from Wichita Heights, there might be room for a new 6A king. Led by Clay Custer, BV Northwest hopes to fill that void. Coach Ed Fritz’s squad must replace Jonny Giess’ presence in the paint, but it should overmatch teams in the backcourt with juniors Ben Richardson, Vince Fritz and Kyle Harrison returning.
The Lions went 20-5 last season, finishing second in the Kaw Valley League and fourth in Kansas 5A. Losing Izaiah Grice would appear to be a massive blow, but with four players back — Joe Schneider (8.9 points a game), Lucas Mein (7.1), Clay Young (6.8) and Khalil Bailey (6.1) — don’t expect much of a step back, especially with the addition of North Kansas City transfer Roy Clayter.
Coming off a 14-9 season, which included a second straight trip to the 6A state tourney, the Hawks return four starters. Led by West Point-bound senior shooting guard Kyle Smith and 6-foot-7 junior forward Ezra Talbert, coach Jim Super’s squad will be quick and defensive-minded. Senior Brett Cook and junior Caelan Neal add additional experience to the backcourt.
The Raiders ought to be among the Kansas 5A favorites, led by returning starters Josh Pedersen, a senior who averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds, sophomore Dainan Swoope, the Sunflower League freshman of the year, and junior Devin Newsome, who averaged 7.3 points and 5.3 assists. Big things are expected from Raytown South transfer DeAngelo Bruster.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ben Johnson, Basehor-Linwood, senior
Winning the Kansas 4A state crown for the second time in four seasons will be a tough act to follow without the Murphy twins, Ryan and Colin. Johnson, who averaged 11 points and 5.5 rebounds, will be out until January. Still, big things are expected when he returns.
Noah Knight, Olathe South, junior
The Sunflower League’s reigning sophomore of the year, Knight is the only returning first-team all-league performer. His backcourt partner again will be sharpshooter David Nelson. Coach Jim Carr’s squad went 17-6 last season and was upended in the 6A quarterfinals by Topeka.**
Anthony Miller, BV Southwest, junior
One of the most gifted athletes in the East Kansas League, Miller averaged 15 points and eight rebounds and was all-league first team a season ago. Miller, also a football and baseball standout for the Timberwolves, shot nearly 60 percent from the field.
Nathan Stacy, Mill Valley, senior
Stacy, a 6-foot-4 forward, led the Jaguars in scoring (21.0), rebounds (10.6), assists (3.4) and steals (2.1) as a junior, finishing with 11 double-doubles. It wasn’t enough to push coach Justin Bogart’s squad to the Kansas 5A state tournament. With a more polished Stacy and a team that didn’t lose any starters or reserves, perhaps that will change.**
Vance Wentz, SM East, senior
Wentz, a 6-foot-4 guard who signed with Montana State, averaged 15 points, four rebounds and two assists as a junior. But it was a disappointing season for the Lancers, who finished 12-10. Wentz and 6-foot-7 senior forward Zach Schneider, who averaged 14 points and six rebounds, hope to help coach Shawn Hair’s squad take a step forward.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
SM Northwest at SM West, Jan. 4
As a junior Jay Temaat shot his way on the Sunflower League third team, but SM West struggled to find its rhythm. The visiting Cougars are rebuilding with only one returning starter. This rematch of the season opener should give an indication of if either team will emerge as a contender.**
Sumner Academy at Harmon, Jan. 11
The visiting Sabres cruised to the Kansas City/Atchison League title last season, but repeating will be tough without Benny Parker, who’s now at Nebraska. Harmon reached the Kansas 5A championship a year ago and will lean on Mike Carson, who averaged 15 points and seven rebounds, in Branden Roark’s absence.
Gardner Edgerton at BV West, Jan. 29
Perhaps it is unfair to call the visiting Jaguars a sleeper. With senior Joey Lillis returning along with junior Ryan Ralston, who is also a football and baseball star, coach Donnie Campbell’s team won’t sneak up on anyone. The Trailblazers, led by senior Kyle Huppe, have been adept at winning as the underdog.**
Bishop Miege at St. Thomas Aquinas, Feb. 5
The Saints reached state for the fifth time in six seasons last year and return first-team All-East Kansas League guard Tyler Clement. The visiting Stags have a new coach — long-time Oak Park coach Fred Turner — but plenty of returning talent, including senior Montell Cozart, a first-team All-EKL guard and Kansas football recruit.
Leavenworth at SM South, Feb. 8
Who knows? Perhaps it’s a preview of the Kansas 5A state championship game. The visiting Pioneers and the Raiders established themselves as perennial state-tourney contenders in 6A, but both dropped down a classification in September. The presence of Larry Hogan’s Leavenworth squad and Brett McFall’s SM South squad in 5A should shake that division up significantly.