Columbus (2-17, 2-15): The Wildcats really struggled last year, averaging just 36.4 points a game, which ranked 94th (out of 96) in 2A. They bring back their top six from that group, led by Eric Valdez (18.4), a high-volume scorer who also led the team with 55 assists. No other player averaged more than 4.9 points a game, and the key for this group will be becoming a bit more balanced. They also need to take better care of the ball after committing 370 turnovers (against 159 assists). It’ll likely be another long year in Columbus Junction, although Valdez will provide some highlights.
Highland (12-8, 12-7): The Huskies bring back the best player in the division, and should be considered the favorite as the result of that fact. Zack Lasek (20.5), a 6-7 senior forward, is a dominant threat who can score inside and out (shot 43.6% from the arc on 78 attempts) and control the glass on either end of the floor. He’s a great athlete, and his future is probably on the football field, but he’ll put together a massive senior year for Highland before leaving. Mason McFarland (12.1) also returns, serving as the team’s primary ball handler and perimeter scoring threat. He made a team-high 37 3s last year (at a 42.0% clip), and dished out 50 assists. Bill Laughlin (5.4), Cole Adamson (4.2), Zane Arnold (2.9) and Derrick Sandburg (1.0) all return as well, giving the Huskies plenty of returning experience. This is the team to beat in the division.
Hillcrest Academy (13-7, 12-6): Formerly Iowa Mennonite, their students now have a team name to use during cheers. They’ll be known as the Ravens, and while I admit I’ll miss the “Let’s go School” chant, it’s nice for them to have a real mascot now. Eli Ours (13.6) led the team in scoring last season and returns to lead the way. He’ll have the ball in his hands a ton this year following the graduation of lead guard Caleb Gingerich, who led the team with 102 assists last year. Ours dished out 74 of his own, and is more than capable of taking over as the lead guard. The only other returnee who saw much time last year is forward Kobe Borntrager (6.9), who shot 61.4% from the floor last year. Ours is one of the better players in the division, and should help lead Hillcrest to a fair amount of wins this year. This is a program that always racks up double figure wins, and that’ll happen again this season.
Lone Tree (8-11, 7-9): The Lions struggled to get any momentum going last year, with no winning streak lasting longer than two games. They bring back leading scorer Keegan Edwards (16.1), a 6-2 senior wing who led the team in nearly every statistical category. He should be a dominant two-way threat with the ability to take over a given game on either end of the floor. The next three scorers from last year’s team graduated, but five other players who saw significant playing time last year return, so they have a fair amount of experience returning. Harmon Miller (5.5) made 22 3-pointers last year, while Corey Krueger (4.0), Cale Yoder (3.1) and Brady Dauber (3.8) are all solid role players. Edwards is one of the best players in this division, and he should lead them to more wins this year. This should be an upper-half of the division team, but they’ll need someone else to step up in a big way if they want to make a push for the division crown.
Louisa-Muscatine (6-15, 6-11): The Falcons showed some strong play last year with an early upset win over Mediapolis. But they also had some confounding losses to Wilton and West Liberty. There just wasn’t much consistency throughout the year. They return five of their top seven from last year, so there is some hope for improvement. Brock Jeambey (8.4) is the top returning scorer, while Emmanuel Walker (7.4), Dallas Vasquez (5.5), Dawson Wehrle (3.7) and Michael Danz (2.3) all saw plenty of time last year. This is a team that really needs to improve from the arc (28.0% last season) if they want to make a major leap in the win column.
Mediapolis (13-5, 13-5): The Bulldogs have to replace a lot of production following the graduation of Ben Wolgemuth, who led the team at 20.5 points and 10.7 rebounds a game. Nick Ensminger, a 13.1 point a game scorer, also graduated. Drew Schroeder (10.7) returns, giving them some scoring punch. He’s a combo forward who can score inside or out. After leading the team with 58 assists, he should have the ball in his hands a lot this season. The other two key returnees are Owen Timmerman (3.8) and Dawson Wirt (3.4). Timmerman is a solid secondary ball handling option, while Wirt is a shooter. Mediapolis usually has a strong athletics program, and they should be solid again this year, but expect a bit of a drop-off after losing someone as productive as Wolgemuth.
Pekin (15-4, 14-4): The Panthers ran off 10 straight wins from December 10-January 18 last year, and were one of the best teams in the division all season. They have a big piece to replace in Cameron Millikin, who led the team in scoring at 16.3 points a game, but they bring back seven of their top nine from last year’s team, including Millikin’s younger brother Brady (10.0), who will be the team’s leading scorer. He made 25 3s last year at a 39.1% clip, both of which ranked second behind Cameron. Kennan Winn (8.1), an efficient forward who shot 55.6% form the floor also returns in the paint, as does Dayne Eckley (6.6), giving them a solid tandem of big men. Nick Tschudy (4.5) gives them some more perimeter shooting. They’ll rely on Brady Millikin to be the team’s primary ball handling option, and he’ll need to improve a bit in that regard and is his playmaking abilities, but this is a group that should be deep and experienced. They’ll battle it out with Highland for the division title.
Wapello (11-9, 10-8): The Indians have a huge piece (literally) to fill this year following the graduation of big man Keaton Mitchell, who is now playing D2 basketball at Truman State. He accounted for 42.8% of the team’s scoring and 40.7% of the rebounding last season. Caden Thomas (9.9), a 6-6 junior forward, looks primed to step into Mitchell’s role as the go-to big man. Thomas shot 57.5% from the floor last year and should post some big numbers this year. Maddox Griffin (1.2) will be the team’s primary ball handler after dishing out 36 assists last year (against 26 turnovers). No other returnee, Griffin included, scored more than 32 points last year, so there is a lot of production to replace here. They should finish in the middle of the pack.
Winfield-Mt. Union (1-19, 1-19): The Wolves really struggled last year, losing games by an average of 23.5 points a game, with the lone win coming over Columbus. They bring back all but 23 points from that group, so there is plenty of continuity. Three players who averaged at least nine points a game last year return in Ty Yocum (9.4), Christian Gerot (9.2) and Jared Arnold (9.0). Gerot and Arnold combined to make 58 3-pointers last year, while Yocum is an efficient forward who shot 53.4% from the floor. Expect to see a few more wins this year as the result of lots of returnees and familiarity, but there just isn’t enough talent here to really compete with the top teams in the division.
Projected Order of Finish
3. Lone Tree
5. Hillcrest Academy
9. Winfield-Mt. Union
Analysis: Highland and Pekin look like fairly heavy favorites to finish 1-2 in the division this year given last year’s results and returning production. We give the edge to Highland, with the division’s best player on their side. Teams 3-6 should all be feisty this season, and could jump up given a few breaks going their way.
Preseason Player of the Year
2020 Zack Lasek, Highland: 20.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks. 55.6 FG%, 43.6 3P%
The leading returnee in scoring, rebounding and blocks, Lasek is a matchup issue in this division with his athleticism, size and ability to score from anywhere. He should have a huge senior season for Highland.
2020 Dayne Eckley, Pekin: The 6-3 big man was second on the team in rebounding last year, shot 50% from the floor and blocked 31 shots. With leading scorer Cameron Millikin graduated, Eckley could have a chance to play a much larger role this year and make a real impact on both ends of the floor.
Players to Watch
2020 Zack Lasek, Highland
2020 Mason McFarland, Highland
2020 Eric Valdez, Columbus
2020 Keegan Edwards, Lone Tree
2021 Eli Ours, Hillcrest Academy
2020 Kobe Borntrager, Hillcrest Academy
2020 Drew Schroeder, Mediapolis
2021 Brady Millikin, Pekin
2020 Kennan Winn, Pekin
2020 Dayne Eckley, Pekin
2021 Caden Thomas, Wapello
2020 Ty Yocum, Winfield-Mt. Union
2020 Christian Gerot, Winfield-Mt. Union
2020 Jared Arnold, WInfield-Mt. Union
2020 Daunte Oepping, Winfield-Mt. Union
2020 Brock Jeambey, Louisa-Muscatine
2021 Emmanuel Walker, Louisa-Muscatine