By Jason Wesseldyk
Talk about making a strong first impression.
As a freshman last season, point guard Quentin Edwards II helped guide his team to a winning record at 12-10, earning First Team All-Conference honors for his efforts.
Edwards II is one of three returning letter winners who hope to help the Tigers continue that upward trajectory.
Senior forward Luke Ellis is also back after earning All-Conference Honorable Mention, while senior shooting guard Dominik Bury rounds out the returning trio.
And while they didn’t play basketball for the Tigers last season, first-year forwards Chris Smith, Miggie Perez and Brayden Shaffer join Ellis and Bury to give third-year coach Quentin Edwards five seniors on the roster.
“We are young overall, but we have some good leadership,” Edwards said. “We are very fast at all positions and rotate well on defense.”
It’s a group that Edwards believes has the potential to enjoy a good deal of success.
“We look to compete for a conference championship,” said Edwards, whose team is entering its second season in the SAC after moving from the Wolverine Conference. “Watervliet is loaded and looks to defend its title, while South Haven will be young but explosive. I see us in the hunt competing with those elder statesmen.”
And Edwards is hoping his team’s success carries beyond the regular season.
Last year, the Tigers won a district semifinal against Hopkins and played in a district title game against Hamilton. Edwards wants to see more of the same.
“That was the first time Allegan had won a district game since 2008 and we want to head back to the district championship this year,” Edwards said. “We’re excited to be in a district with some familiar rivals from the Wolverine Conference.”
Edwards is also looking forward to the community events that will take place during halftime of home games.
Make change, not excuses.
That’s the motto Albert Lombard is brining into his first season as head coach at Fennville.
“We’re trying to revitalize a renewed culture and spirit in the program,” said Lombard, who inherits a team that went 8-16 last year. “We’re focusing our season around four pillars to success: academics, attitude, leadership and skill.
“Those values will be placed to ripple throughout the program and establish a culture of success moving forward.”
Although this is his first season leading the Blackhawks, Lombard is familiar with his players as he is also the principal at Fennville High School.
“I am in a unique role taking on this responsibility (of varsity basketball coach), but I am honored to be trusted with this opportunity,” Lombard said. “And I’m encouraged by the talent and hard work of the boys up to this point.
“I am committed to establishing the needed elements of a successful program and want to start building this year.”
Seniors Nick Beach (guard), Devohn Calhoun (guard/forward), Juan Porrez (guard/forward) and Jesus Cordova (forward) spearhead a list of six returning players. Junior forwards Quinn Rosema and Aidan Swingle also return.
“We have a solid list of returning contributors from the 2022-23 roster,” Lombard said. “These young men possess experience and skills combined with strong leadership to lead the way this season.”
Newcomers include senior centers Hunter Looman, Mason Long and Ben Water along with junior guards Makai Weimer and Manny Beach and sophomore guard Pachara Komjumphol.
“The newcomers add depth to the team,” Lombard said. “And we definitely gained some size in the post.
“We are encouraged by the work ethic of the team as a whole and the commitment that the boys bring. A combination of speed and size will make us contenders in lots of games this year in the SAC.”
Speaking of the SAC, Lombard believes Fennville can finish in the top half of the league standings. He views Watervliet, South Haven, Allegan and Saugatuck as top contenders for conference honors.
“We’ve set some team goals this season that include improving on last year’s record, improving each week and competing for a district title. The expectations are high for the team in terms of work ethic, sportsmanship, leadership and, most importantly, academics.”
Graduation has taken a toll on a Hopkins team that amassed a 15-7 overall record (8-5 in the OK Silver) last season.
How much of a toll? Well, eight of the 13 players from last year’s roster are now gone.
That’s a pretty big toll.
But the cupboard isn’t completely bare, as five players return: the senior quartet of center Micah Estelle, forward Connor Ainsworth, point guard JT Reed and guard Kaden Edwards along with junior guard/forward Nick Schultz.
Newcomers who could make an impact include junior guard/forward Joe Hendriksma, sophomore guard Cruz Hitzler and the freshmen duo of point guard Trent Smith and guard/forward Merek Zapolnik.
“We’re a young team and lack some experience in certain areas,” Hopkins coach Jake Jewett said. “However, we have a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of basketball as far as Courthouse, AAU and various training year-round.
“Both offensively and defensively, we have a lot of athletes and we should be improved with our outside shooting. That, in combination with Micah Estelle down low, should make us more versatile on the offensive end.”
It’s a group that Jewett believes can accomplish some big things.
“Our goal is to win an OK Silver Conference and a district title,” Jewett said.
As far as the conference title is concerned, the Vikings will have to get past two-time defending champ Calvin Christian.
“Calvin will likely be the favorites to repeat,” Jewett said. “Our goal is to improve each day and win the conference. The OK Silver Conference is always tough, but our guys won’t back down to anyone.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how this year’s group gels and comes together from a chemistry standpoint. To me, that is going to be the biggest factor that determines what kind of season we have.”
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Corby Callaway.
After coaching JV boys basketball at Martin 15 years ago, Callaway is back with the Clippers, this time as varsity head coach.
He inherits a team that posted a 3-19 record a year ago. And he knows it could take a few weeks for the Clippers to find their groove as several of the players have been busy with the football team that just won its second straight state title.
“It may take a bit for us to come together,” he said. “But there is no doubt in my mind we will continue to get better every day.”
Senior forward Logan Kent is one of the returning players for the Clippers, with junior forward Nick Jager and sophomore guard Ethan Fitzpatrick among the top newcomers.
“We are athletic, extremely hard working and play for each other,” Callaway said.
And while a challenging schedule could hurt Martin’s record during the regular season, Callaway believes it will serve the Clippers well come the postseason.
“We play a tough schedule, as we play only five D4 teams, with the rest D2 and D3,” he said. “But it will get us ready for a run at a district title.”
Lucky number seven.
That’s what Otsego will be aiming for when it comes to consecutive Wolverine Conference championships.
And with nine returning players from a team that went 18-5 overall and 12-1 in league play, the Bulldogs should have a good chance of reaching that goal.
“My goal is always to have players who believe in each other, believe in our system and are ready to compete every time they step on the floor,” said Otsego coach Matt Dennis, who enters his eighth year with the program with a 119-29 record. “If the coaches and team can do this, then I think we have a chance to win a lot of games and compete for a conference championship.”
Point guard Blake Marks leads a group of seven returning seniors who form the nucleus of the team.
Other returning seniors include forwards Kyle Lingbeek, Nick Lopez, Jack Holmes, Brevin Gabos and Callum Wesseldyk along with guard Nolan VanderRoest.
“Players such as Blake Marks and Kyle Lingbeek will be on the opposing team’s radars this season,” Dennis said. “And while Nick is a returner, he was only able to play half the season last year and didn’t hit his stride until the end of the season. This year, he is more comfortable in our offense and defense. He has the ability to make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor.”
Junior guard Louis DiGrandi also returns.
Newcomers include 6-foot-5 junior forward Landon Eastman.
“Landon adds height and length to our roster,” Dennis said. “He is a versatile player who can shoot from the outside and will be a solid rebounder for us. We’re not the tallest team, so his help rebounding will be big.”
Fellow juniors Andrew Ballman, Jace Wannamaker and Scottie Durr round out the team.
“Our biggest strength as a team will be our basketball IQ,” Dennis said. “Most of the players live and breathe basketball. They know how to move the ball, time their cuts, communicate effectively and work together.
“Our depth will be a big factor as well. Each player has a skill set that will allow them to step on the floor and make an impact. We have several players with the ability to step up and play big on both ends of the floor on any given night. This will make us hard to guard on offense and tenacious on defense.”
In terms of Otsego’s main challengers for the Wolverine Conference title, Dennis thinks Edwardsburg will be strong once again.
“Vicksburg and Niles will be two teams who could also make some noise in conference play,” he said.
After moving from three wins during the 2020-21 season to eight wins in ’21-22, Saugatuck took yet another leap forward with a 14-9 record last year.
And with nine—yes nine—returning letter winners on the roster, Trailblazers coach Brian Ward has high hopes that the upward trend will continue in the new campaign.
“We have big goals and expectations for this season, especially with as many kids returning as we have,” Ward said. “We placed second last year in the conference behind a Galesburg-Augusta team that graduated a lot. So, we’re hoping to win a conference championship this year.”
And the Trailblazers’ aspirations don’t stop at conference play. Rather, they include the postseason as well.
“We moved south for our district assignment and our district is not as stacked as it has been in years past,” Ward said. “So, our next goal would be to win a district championship as well and move on to regionals.”
The team’s nine returning players—seven of them seniors—are expected to carry the vast majority of the load for Saugatuck.
The group of returning seniors includes shooting guards Russell VandePoel, Eli Janowiak and Bradley Moorer; forwards Jack McCoy and Matt Hartgerink; and centers Landon Miller and Will Doucette.
Junior shooting guard Carter Miller and junior point guard Cass Stanberry round out the list of returning players.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back and we also have exceptional guard play,” Ward said when asked about the areas of strength for his team. “We will be very tough to guard and there are a number of players who can score on any night.”
Although each member of the team has an important role to play, Stanberry will be one of the keys for Saugatuck from his point guard position.
“Our one area of concern is lack of depth at point guard,” Ward said. “We only have one true point guard in Cass, so should there be an injury or foul trouble in a game, we could struggle to remain cohesive on offense.”
If Wayland coach Chris Jasinski had to choose one word to describe the 2023-24 version of his team, that might be it.
“We are pretty athletic and have quite a few multiple-sport athletes,” he said.
At the top of the list of players who possess athleticism is returning senior Kaharrie Purefoy.
“Purefoy is a very talented three-sport athlete who we think could have a big season,” Jasinski said.
Other Wildcats who fall into the category of “athletic” include retuning seniors Aidan Reeder and Brady Cassini along with junior newcomer Maurgan Howard.
“Reeder is solid on the track; Howard is a very good soccer player and track athlete; and Cassini is a very solid three-sport athlete, also playing football and baseball.
“We are hoping to use our athleticism to our advantage on the defensive end. We can also shoot the ball pretty well, and our guys love to shoot the triple.”
Joining Purefoy, Reeder and Cassini as returning seniors are Peyton Moore, Warren Smith and Drew Lyon.
Purefoy and Moore are both three-year varsity players.
“We graduated six seniors last year who were a pretty vital part of our success last year,” said Jasinski, who guided Wayland to a 13-13 record a year ago. “But we still have several seniors this year.
“If we can combine our returners with the newcomers and begin to gel we should be able to compete with most teams.”
Sophomores Tyler Pehrson and Brady Perrin are newcomers who, along with Howard, will vie for playing time.
“We don’t have a ton of size, with Perrin being our tallest player at 6-foot-4,” Jasinski said. “So, we’ll have to really focus on rebounding as a team.”
In conference play, Jasinski expects usual suspects Grand Rapids South Christian and G.R. Catholic Central to be among the teams to beat.
“The OK Gold is always one of the toughest conferences in West Michigan,” he said. “South Christian and Catholic Central always seem to find their way to the Breslin.
“After those two teams, Ottawa Hills returns some pretty players from a team that finished third in the conference.”
NOTE: Preview information was not received from Hamilton or Plainwell prior to deadline.