Conference Preview: Little Hawkeye

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Posted On: 11/24/17 11:11 AM

The Teams
Dallas Center-Grimes (15-10): The Mustangs got off to a surprisingly scorching start last season, winning their first nine games before a mid-season swoon in which they dropped nine of 12 contests. They rebounded late to earn another trip to the state tournament, but they’ll have some work to do if they want to repeat that success. They lose two of their top three scorers from last season, and four key rotation players from that group are gone in total. They’ll be led this year by Steve Borneman (12.6), a long 6-3 wing who can score inside and out, led the team in assists and steals, and is able to routinely get to the free throw line. He’s a high-level player who will be asked to do a lot for DC-G this season. Jordan Humphreys (8.4) also returns, giving them a capable shooter alongside Borneman. Tanner Epple (4.4), Tyler Cooney (2.6) and Damon Clapper (2.4) will need to adjust to larger roles, but this team is going to go as far as Borneman takes them. They’ve been a solid program for years, and we wouldn’t anticipate a massive drop-off, but we don’t see another 9-0 start coming either. This is a group that should finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in the league, and be a potentially dangerous team to play when the postseason brackets are released.

Grinnell (12-12): The Tigers only lose three seniors from last year’s roster, but the unfortunate news is that two of them, Cade McKnight and Sam Allen, are among the most productive players in the school’s history. They combined for nearly 40 points a game last season and will be extremely difficult to replace. They do have a bit of talent returning in Ethan Mitchell (11.4), Jake Hull (6.3) and Lucas Scherf (4.3), a trio of shooters who combined to knock down 104 3s last season. It may be a bit more difficult for them to get their shots off this season without the two stars taking so much attention, but nonetheless, they’re all quality shooters who will knock down open looks if they get them. Outside of that trio, there isn’t much returning in Grinnell, so they’ll have to find a lot of new pieces to slide into some key roles.

Indianola (3-19): The Indians struggled last season, routinely getting blown out (only five of their 19 losses were by 10 or less), but there is some reason for optimism. Their two leading scorers last season were sophomores, Evan Gauger (14.2) and Quinn Vesey (8.2), and they bring back their top four scorers overall. Gauger is a shifty scoring guard who also led the team in assists and steals and is one of the better players in the league, while Vesey led the team in rebounding and finished second in assists and steals. Brady Held (6.6), Cole Scott (6.0) and Gavin Smith (4.1) also return, giving them a fairly experienced group to roll with. They gave up 66.2 points a game last season, which ranked 42nd out of 48 4A teams. They’ll need to improve on that end if they want to see some significant improvement. They should be improved, but in a league as tough as the Little Hawkeye, it’ll still be really tough for them to make enough of an improvement to get out of the cellar.

Newton (19-6): The Cardinals may be the most difficult team in the league to peg. They lose four of the top five scorers from a state tournament team that took eventual champion Iowa City West to the wire. But they also bring back our preseason POY in the conference in senior guard Garrett Sturtz (19.8), who has turned himself into one of the best pure scorers in the state. He’s a long, versatile combo guard who can score effectively at all three levels, rebounds at a high level and led the team in every category except scoring (finishing 0.7/game behind Connor Gholson). He’s going to carry this team to plenty of wins, but he’ll have to do so as they break in a lot of new faces and a lot of bench players adjust to significantly larger roles. Grayson Graham (1.8) and Quintrail Coley (1.0) are the only other returnees who saw any somewhat significant playing time last season, so there are lots of question marks on the roster. Graham is a 6-2 wing who can knock down an occasional 3 and handles the ball fairly well, while Coley is a 6-6 sophomore big man with athleticism to burn who could develop into a major player. They’ll be asking for a lot of production out of him. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered in Newton, but one thing is for sure – they’ll be led by a winner who is going to have a huge season ensuring they won’t drop off too far. They’ll be a factor in the league race.

Norwalk (11-12): The top four scorers from last season are back for the Warriors, including their top two, a potent duo of scoring guards in Luke Vaske (20.1) and Bowen Born (13.0), who may form the best backcourt in the league. Vaske has been a varsity mainstay for four years now, and has turned himself into one of the best scorers in 3A. He knocked down 62 3s last season at a 41.6% clip. Born is coming off a really strong freshman season in which he chipped in 34 3s of his own (39.1%), led the team in assists and steals, and was able to routinely penetrate opposing defenses with his blend of ball handling and quickness. The tandem should make life on opposing defenses very difficult this season. Also returning are Tyler Endres (6.8), a 6-6 junior post who shot 61% from the floor last season, and Daniel Geistler (5.5), a 6-5 combo forward who can stretch out to the arc and knock down shots or play in the paint. Look for them to get a little more involved on the offensive end this season. Blake Johnson (4.6) gives the Warriors another perimeter shooting option, and Drew Rosonke (2.4) isn’t much of a scorer but led the team in rebounding and provides some toughness on the interior. This is a team that lost seven games by single digits last season and allowed 60.7 points a game (46th out of 64 3A teams). If they can trim five or six points off that average, their win total will skyrocket and they could compete for the league crown. They showed what they were capable of at times last season, notching wins against teams like Oskaloosa, Newton and Pella Christian, but they’ll need to make it a more consistent thing this season.

Oskaloosa (15-9): Outside of a few teams in 4A, the Indians may have the most talented roster in the state. They open the year ranked No. 5 in our Class 3A poll, and bring seven of their top eight scorers back from a team that fell in the substate final to Mount Pleasant. The headliner here is obviously 6-10 sophomore Xavier Foster (7.5), who had an extremely productive freshman season, largely coming off the bench, and is a consensus top-25 player nationally in his class. He led 3A in blocks, far and away, with 87, and has the ability to score inside and out. He’s loaded with potential, and after a summer playing with USA Basketball, he’s ready to start putting everything together. He’s far from alone, however. Jared Kruse (14.1) is an efficient post player who can also stretch out and knock down an occasional 3. He also rebounds at a high level and can protect the rim. Cole Henry (11.7) is a 6-9 junior forward garnering Division I interest. He led the team in rebounding and assists and shot 52.3% from the floor. Spencer Tucker (7.8) is the team’s top ball handler and perimeter threat, knocking down 40% of his 3s last season, and Tanner DeKock (4.3) and Rian Yates (4.3) provide some more talent and depth. This team has a pair of Division I players in Foster and Henry, talented guards with Tucker, DeKock and Yates, and a dominant, efficient big man in Kruse. They have lots of versatility and depth, and should be the team to beat in the league, and depending on how much Foster has developed, perhaps the team to beat in 3A as well.

Pella (22-3): The Dutch are in an interesting spot heading into this season. They lose their top four scorers, and seven key rotation players in all, from last year’s state qualifying group. They also lost their coach to Des Moines East, replacing him with Derek Schulte, who had heaps of success at Montezuma. So the expectation would be for there to be some drop-off after the tremendous success they’ve had over the last five years, right? There may be some, but this is a program, and a community, that has really bought into the school’s athletics, and they’re routinely churning out talented athletes who they’re able to just plug and play into their system. Schulte is going to play a similar style to what they’ve grown accustomed to in Pella, and while they don’t have a ton of experience coming back, you can be sure they’ll have athletes and length who will buy into the system and ensure that there isn’t too much decline. The leading returnees are Nick DeJong (5.2), Landon VanderLeest (4.8), Ryan Gustafson (2.9) and Avery VanZee (2.6). DeJong is an efficient interior presence, while the other three should be capable perimeter options. They’ll find plenty of other players to fill in the rest of the gaps. Will they contend for the conference title? Maybe not. But they’ll be a team nobody wants to see in their grouping for the postseason because of their style of play, and they should still contend for an upper half finish in the league.

Pella Christian (22-5): Like their crosstown rival, Pella, the Eagles are always going to be competitive. But this season may be difficult, especially early on. Eight seniors from last year’s group are gone, and they were the top eight scorers on that team. The leading returnee, Kade Vander Molen (1.9), scored just 50 points last season, and in all only 74 points are back from last year’s roster. They will certainly plug some players in and keep things rolling, but anytime you lose players like Levi Jungling and David Kacmarynski, there will be a drop-off, especially when there is no experience coming back to help stem the tide.

Projected Order of Finish
1. Oskaloosa
2. Newton
3. Pella
4. Norwalk
5. Dallas Center-Grimes
6. Pella Christian
7. Grinnell
8. Indianola

Analysis: The Indians have the most talented team in the league, by a pretty large margin, and should be considered the favorite. But Newton has a great winner in Sturtz, Pella is always strong, and Norwalk may have the league’s best backcourt. The Little Hawkeye is always tough, and this year will be no exception, as just about any team in the league can beat anyone else on any given night.

PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR

2018 Garrett Sturtz, Newton: 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 134 FTM

A remarkably gifted two-way player, Sturtz nearly carried the Cardinals to a first round upset over Iowa City West last March at the state tournament. Blessed with great footwork and length, he’s a versatile scorer who just knows how to put the ball in the bucket. With Connor Gholson gone, this is entirely his team now, and he’s going to carry Newton to plenty of wins while putting up some incredible numbers.

BIGGEST SLEEPER

2020 Jake Hull, Grinnell: A solid perimeter shooter who will have a chance to be one of the primary scoring options for the Tigers this season, it won’t be long before Hull is a name known across central Iowa.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
2018 Garrett Sturtz, Newton
2018 Luke Vaske, Norwalk
2020 Bowen Born, Norwalk
2019 Tyler Endres, Norwalk
2018 Daniel Geistler, Norwalk
2018 Jarad Kruse, Oskaloosa
2020 Xavier Foster, Oskaloosa
2019 Cole Henry, Oskaloosa
2018 Spencer Tucker, Oskaloosa
2018 Tanner DeKock, Oskaloosa
2018 Steve Borneman, Dallas Center-Grimes
2018 Jordan Humphreys, Dallas Center-Grimes
2019 Evan Gauger, Indianola
2019 Quinn Vesey, Indianola
2018 Ethan Mitchell, Grinnell
2019 Nick DeJong, Pella