The first rounds of the ACAC and NECC basketball tournaments will tip off today, marking the first major basketball tournaments in the area since COVID-19 interrupted the boys state tournament last March.
The ACAC boys tournament will be contested for the 98th time, a remarkable streak made even more impressive by the fact that events from the Summer Olympics to the Michigan high school football playoffs to the SAC Holiday Tournament have been moved or outright canceled since March.
Heading into this week's tournament, the Heritage (5-4) and Jay County (3-3) boys are the only teams to start the conference season 2-0. Bluffton (3-5) is 1-0 with a win over Woodlan (3-6, 0-1). Jay County is the only team in the seven-team field with a bye, meaning the Patriots would need just two wins to bring home the title. They will play the winner of Woodlan-Bluffton in the semfinals Friday.
South Adams entered the season as a trendy pick to win the ACAC but opened slowly after starting the season late because of the football team's run to the state championship game. The Starfires lost their first three games, including their only conference game so far, against Heritage 69-61, but have since won four of five. Their average of 61.6 points per game is the most of any team in the conference, and their three-game winning streak is also the longest of the seven teams in the field.
Heritage and Adams Central (6-5), which has the most wins of any team in the conference, will meet in the first round. Heritage sophomore Luke Saylor is averaing 19.8 points and put up 39 in a 69-61 win over South Adams.
Defending champ Woodlan has struggled, losing six of the last seven games, although junior Joe Reidy joined the 1,000-point club over the weekend.
The Warriors are also the defending champions on the girls side, though Woodlan (6-8, 2-2 ACAC) has taken a step back since last season. The Warriors beat Bluffton (8-7, 1-3) 44-34 on Saturday, and the teams will meet again in a rematch today.
The winner will be rewarded with a meeting against Jay County (12-3, 4-0). In their four ACAC games, the Patriots have won by an average of 16.25 points, including a 22-point win over Woodlan and a 17-point win over Bluffton on Friday.
Adams Central (9-7) has already played a full ACAC schedule, finishing 4-2 against the conference slate. Senior McKenna Dietsch is averaging 12.2 points per game, and Alivia Dalrymple and Sage Hammond are averaging just over 10. The Flying Jets kept it close when they played Jay County, falling 46-41.
The Jets open today against Heritage (9-8), which has lost three straight games.
Meanwhile in the NECC tournament, the Churubusco boys will be looking for revenge while Central Noble looks to stay on top. The Cougars came out ahead 63-57 when the teams met in the semifinals last season, and Central Noble beat Prairie Heights 76-70 in the finals.
The Churubusco boys (7-1) will play a weakened Prairie Heights (2-9) in the first round today. The Eagles already beat the Panthers 108-52 on Jan. 2, and if they win again, they will move on to the winner of Central Noble (9-1) vs, Lakeland (3-3).
If Central Noble and Churubusco meet in the second round, it will be a faceoff of some of the brightest stars in the NECC. Central Noble's Connor Essegian became the program's leading scorer last week, and both Jackson Paul and Landen Jordan are averaging over 20 points (Jordan is also averaging 16.8 rebounds per game) for Churubusco. Busco's Luke McClure is also averaging 16.3 points.
The road won't get much easier Friday, when the winner from that section of the bracket will face the winner of Hamilton-Westview. Westview handed Churubusco its only loss of the season, beating the Eagles 63-48 in the season opener.
Angola (4-5), Eastside (6-1) and West Noble (4-3) lie in wait on the other side of the bracket.
On the girls' side, there are plenty of contenders, but none as formidable as Garrett (14-1). The Railroaders have suffered just one loss, against nonconference opponent Norwell, one of the best girls teams in the area. Bailey Kelham is averaging 16.7 points, and Morgan Ostrowski and Taylor Gerke are each averaging over 10. Ostrowski averages 9.9 rebounds, and Nataley Armstrong is dishing out 9.1 assists per game (the Railroaders as a team have 15.7 assists per game).
The Railroaders will open the tournament against Fremont (3-13, 1-7 NECC). In the next round, they will face the winner of Angola-Eastside. The Hornets (10-3, 6-2) are the defending champions, and though they lost to Garrett in November, they kept it close, losing 56-48. Since then, Angola has won eight of the last nine, with the lone loss coming against Homestead.
Whoever wins that second-round match will advance to play the winner of West Noble-Fairfield on Friday. The Chargers (13-3) have wins over Columbia City and Central Noble, and lost narrowly to Angola (54-51) this month.
Central Noble (11-3) opens the tournament against Lakeland. The Cougars took the lead against Garrett when the two met Friday, and were only defeated when Garrett held them to five points in the fourth quarter.
First two rounds, boys games begin at 6 p.m., girls follow
Woodlan at Bluffton
Southern Wells at South Adams
Heritage at Adams Central
Jay County vs. Woodlan-Bluffton winner, at Bluffton
Southern Wells-South Adams winner vs. Heritage-Adams Central winner, at Adams Central
at South Adams
Boys 3 p.m.; Girls 7 p.m.
Girls games at 6 p.m., followed by boys games
Eastside at Angola
Garrett at Fremont
Prairie Heights at Churubusco
Lakeland at Central Noble
Angola-Eastside winner vs. Fremont-Garrett winner
West Noble vs. Fairfield
Prairie Heights-Churubusco winner vs. Central Noble-Lakeland winner
Hamilton at Westview
Consolation games, 6 p.m.
Semifinals, 6 p.m.
Girls 5:30 p.m., boys 7:30 p.m.