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High Schools

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Logan Peel and Fremont are expected to compete for the league title.

No clear-cut favorite for league title

Coaches see plenty of parity

West Noble coach Jim Best knows just how difficult it is to predict how high school teams will fare season to season.

On paper, his squad is one of the best in the NECC. But after an 11-0 start last season, he learned all too well how easy it is for a great year to slip away.

Then-junior Drew Schermerhorn broke his ankle, a few players violated team rules and West Noble lost six games by the end of the season.

“We’ll have four seniors, and I think that if they work hard and come in with a good attitude to get better each day that we should have a decent season,” he said. “It’s a little bit tough to tell, but we should be seasoned and ready to go.”

That seems to be the story throughout the conference.

A core group of teams, including West Noble, Fremont and Eastside, could contend for the conference title. Westview returns the bulk of its roster after an undefeated NECC slate last season, and Fairfield and Prairie Heights also look strong.

Then comes the rest of the conference, which is even more murky. Some of those teams could break into that upper echelon this year.

“I think there’s a lot of solid teams in the conference this year – I hope that we’re one of them,” said Fremont coach Ted Bookwalter, who has four letter winners returning but loses 27.5 points per game from the graduated Tyler Jenkins. “I think there is a lot of parity this year, so maybe it will be how styles match up within the conference.

“I think it’ll be tough to get through without a loss.”

That has some teams excited and others stressed out.

Eastside coach Ryan Abbott is one of the excited ones. He led his team to a 9-13 record and 6-4 NECC finish during his first season and hopes his team’s style of play will help it shock some teams like it did last season.

“We were much improved last year, but we even had some close games that we lost that we thought we had control of late in the game,” Abbott said. “Committing to defense every night, I think, gives us an advantage if we do have a poor shooting night.”

Best is one of the stressed coaches.

The third-year coach, who guided West Noble to an 8-2 conference record and second-place finish in the NECC, listed about two-thirds of the 11-team conference when he thought about which teams were dangerous this season. He’s without Nick Thomas, the team’s vocal leader last season, but returns his top two scorers in Schermerhorn and senior Keith Gibson.

But it all comes back to how unpredictable the conference, the game and, in some cases, the players can be.

“We really don’t have that vocal guy out on the floor, and it’s one of the ways we’re going to miss Nick Thomas from last year. He was that guy that could get after anybody,” said Best, who will rely on his four seniors to take on different parts of the leadership of his team.

“It’s just a matter of getting a good flow with the four of them. I don’t think that we’ll really have an outspoken leader on the floor.”

Few teams know what they have or what the expectations should be this season. But most, like Abbott’s, have a singular focus in a year of parity and change.

“My biggest fear is us judging ourselves on kind of what happened last year,” he said. “I think we’re a little more focused on just taking another step forward.”