Two titles, many contenders in SEC cage races

By: 
S. Lee Epps

More teams, maybe most teams in the conference can be considered legitimate title contenders as the Southeast Conference basketball boys launch division races this week. Throw in a dark horse or two, and both division cage races appear to be up for grabs in 2019-20. There are two division championships with no overall champion.

The two defending division champs - Spring Grove (25-5) and Randolph (26-3) - which were also the two 2019 section finalists, are two of the league's most inexperienced clubs this winter. Either could repeat, but several challengers all feature significantly more varsity veterans.

The Rockets and Lions both bring back only one starter from last year's exceptional seasons. But both of those starters were all-conference players. However, Lyle/Pacelli, Houston, Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander also return an All-SEC performer supported with far more experienced teammates.

Spring Grove has not only been the "Beast of the East" Division but also the dominant program of the entire conference. The Lions have won not only nine consecutive East Division titles but also 74 straight conference games. Last year, Spring Grove was the first SEC squad to play in the boys state tournament. Before the current conference was formed, Lyle in 1962 and Pacelli in 1992 (state champ) also had state appearances.

But even with last year's 25-5 state tournament lineup, the Lions had a couple of three-point close calls against Kingsland to keep their SEC winning streak going. And there were also a couple of tight non-conference wins over Grand Meadow and Houston.

Despite significant graduation losses, both the Lions and Rockets still receive a lot of respect. In a Section 1A preview, statewide publication Breakdown ranks Spring Grove third in the section, Grand Meadow fourth and Randolph fifth behind two non-conference programs - No. 1 Rushford-Peterson and No. 2 Hayfield. That rating preceded Hayfield's 66-60 season-opening win against visiting Randolph.

Lion junior Caden Grinde was the featured individual player of the section, and along with Grand Meadow's Colt Landers, two of five All-Section standouts.

There is a shuffled alignment with East Division runner-up Kingsland moving over to the West Division while Schaeffer Academy comes over to the East.

In the West Division, can rebuilding Randolph hold off Grand Meadow again and the loop's most experienced team Lyle/Pacelli?

Kingsland is not as experienced as that trio but returns a starting point guard and exceptional height.  LeRoy-Ostrander must replace a three-time All-SEC point guard but brings back its other all-conference player.  Glenville-Emmons returns four starters although mired in a lengthy losing streak.

The SEC West race began earlier this week with G-E at Kingsland, Grand Meadow visiting L-O and Lyle/Pacelli hosting Randolph.

Kingsland heads to Randolph Friday (Dec. 6).

In the East, Houston and Schaeffer could challenge Spring Grove supremacy. The Hurricanes return three starters as does Schaeffer and Mabel-Canton.

The Schaeffer Lions had four players scoring in double figures during a 69-53 season-opening road win at Class AA Triton.

The Cougars, who must find a new point guard, got the first shot at Spring Grove in this week's opener for both teams.

Like Spring Grove, Lanesboro returns only one starter, but the young Burros (no seniors) could be a threat with some height and athleticism.

The East Division race began in earnest as this article was going to press. By the time it is being read, Mabel-Canton will have already played both Spring Grove and Schaeffer. And Houston will have already visited Lanesboro. It could be an early championship showdown when the Lions visit the Hurricanes this Friday (Dec. 6).

Comparatively young third-year 'Cane coach Trent Vix could be matching wits with 92 years of experience on the Spring Grove bench, including his Hall of Fame cousin Tom Vix, who along with veteran Al Lochner, are again assisting current Class A State Coach of the Year Wade Grinde.

WEST DIVISION

>>>Grand Meadow

Last year: 29-9 (10-5 SEC)

SEC titles: 3 (2016, 2014, 2013)

State trips: none

Graduated: 3 (1 starter)

Colt Landers leads a cast of four returning starters. The 6-4 junior forward/guard has already been All-SEC as a freshman and sophomore. He was the league's fourth leading scorer with a 19.6-point average in SEC games. Overall, he averaged 19.9 points and 5.0 rebounds a game. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Landers already ranks fifth on the all-time Superlark scoring list. He ranked second in the conference with 3.8 made 3-point baskets per game.

Honorable Mention All-SEC 6-1 senior point guard Ethan Lane is back to lead the attack. He averaged 6.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists for last year's West Division runner-up.

Other returning starters are 5-10 senior guard John Baldus and 6-3 senior forward Ethan Gilbert.

>>>Randolph

Last year: 26-3 (14-1 SEC)

SEC titles: 3 (2019, 2018, 2015)

State trips: none

Graduated: 5 (4 starters)

The Rockets graduated four starters, including a two-year All-SEC selection playing now at Lake Superior College plus an All-SEC Honorable Mention.

The returning starter is Second Team All-SEC Nick Drinken, who coach Kent Otte told Breakdown is "one of the best all-around players" he has coached in his five years at Randolph. The 6-3 senior averaged 11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

Among six returning letter winners are 6-3 senior guard/ forward Dane Ehleringer and 6-4 forward/center Isaac Stoesz. Both averaged 4.7 points last season.

>>>Lyle/Pacelli

Last year: 9-14 (5-9 SEC)

SEC titles: 3 (2015, 2010, 2008),

Lyle (1998)

State trips: Lyle 1962, Pacelli 1992

Graduated: 3 (1 part-time starter)

The Athletics bring back four full-time starters and one part-time starter, including 6-2 junior forward Jed Nelson, who was all-conference as both a freshman and a sophomore. He averaged 13.6 and 7.0 rebounds as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention All-SEC Cole Walter returns as a 5-9 junior point guard, who ranked second in the conference in assists. For the season, he averaged 7.3 points and 5.0 assists as a sophomore.

Other experienced players are 5-11 junior guard Zach Bollingberg (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), 6-3 freshman Buay Koak (8.2 ppg) 6-6 Mach Diang (6.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg), and 5-10 senior guard Tyson Anderson.

>>>Kingsland

Last year: 17-11 (11-3 SEC)

SEC titles: new member

State trips: none

Graduated: 8 (3 starters)

The Knights graduated a First Team All-SEC standout, who was the league's second leading scorer plus an Honorable Mention.

But starting point guard 5-9 Lucas Howard is back to direct the attack, which will feature 6-7 senior Zach Hauser with both height and an outside shot. There are five seniors and two juniors.

>>>LeRoy-Ostrander

Last year: 11-15 (5-9 SEC)

SEC titles: 2 (2002, 2003)

State trips: none

Graduated: 2 (2 starters)

The Cardinals return three starters, including one of their two all-conference players and an honorable mention.

Riley Olson was All-SEC last year after receiving honorable mention as a sophomore. The 6-4 senior forward was the league's second leading rebounder with 10.3 boards a game during SEC action.

Dakota Stoopes, a 6-1 senior guard, received Honorable Mention All-SEC and is back along with 5-9 senior guard Carter Johnson.

>>>Glenville-Emmons

Last year: 0-23 (0-15 SEC)

SEC titles: 2 (2012, 2011)

State trips: none

Graduated: 1 (1 starter)

The Wolverines bring back four starters and all but one of last year's lineup, but they have lost their last 44 games and their last 28 conference contests.

Dawson Dahlum, a 5-8 senior point guard received Honorable Mention All-SEC honors last year, but he will need more help if G-E is to avoid the West Division cellar for a third straight winter.

EAST DIVISION

>>Houston

Last year: 13-15 (5-9 SEC)

SEC titles: none

State trips: none

Graduated: 7 (2 starters)

The Hurricanes return three of five starters, most notably Second Team All-SEC senior forward 6-1 Alex VanGundy who had a solid all-around stat line, averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists. and 2.5 steals per game.

Also back is 6-2 senior forward Mikkel Schutte, who was the conference's leading rebounder with 11.0 per game.

>>Spring Grove

Last year: 25-5 (14-0 SEC)

SEC titles: 14 (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2004)

State trips: 2019 (3rd place)

Graduated: 5 (4 starters)

Graduation claimed a pair of multi-season all-conference players, including a point guard who was twice SEC Player of the Year.

The Lions rebuild around 6-3 All-SEC guard junior Caden Grinde, who can do it all -averaging 10.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.5 steals per game as a sophomore.

Senior 6-1 forward Kyle Hagen is the only other letter winner. Production inside is expected from Wyatt Murphy, a 6-5 post who missed much of last year with an injury, and 6-4 newcomer John Koch.

If the Lions are to repeat, Grinde will need some support on the perimeter.

>>Schaeffer Academy

Last year: 13-14 (7-8 SEC)

SEC titles: 2 (2017, 2014)

State trips: none

Graduated: 2 (2 starters)

The Lions bring back three starters from the third place team in the SEC West. Isaiah Lahr, a 5-11 senior guard, received Honorable Mention All-SEC.

>>Lanesboro

Last year: 10-15 (4-10 SEC)

SEC titles: 2 (2010, 2007)

State trips: none

Graduated: 6 (4 starters)

The Burros bring back only one starter from last year's team that tied for fourth and fifth with Mabel-Canton at the bottom of the East Division.

Sawyer Johnson, a 6-0 junior guard is a proven 3-point threat, shooting 37% beyond the arc while averaging 9.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.

Lanesboro must replace a two-time All-SEC point guard but should receive more production near the basket with a trio of juniors at 6-3 and 6-2.

>>Mabel-Canton

Last year: 8-19 (4-10 SEC)

SEC titles: none

State trips: none

Graduated: 5 (3 starters)

The Cougars will build around three seniors with starting experience - 6-3 Brayden Gjere, 6-2 Ethan Underbakke and 5-11 Parker Ingvalson. But they must replace two quality post players and a three-time All-SEC point guard, who led the league in steals.