BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — DANVILLE — Westville coach Jeff Millis has seen more than 20 seasons of high school basketball in Vermilion County.
So, when he was asked about this year’s Vermilion Valley Conference boys basketball season, the veteran coach found the perfect word.
“Parity,’’ he said. “This league looks to be as good competitively as it has ever been since it was formed about 10 years ago.’’
And that’s because the Vermilion Valley Conference is going to be senior-laden league with six of the 11 first team all-conference players returning this year and those six players represent five different schools.
Only the Salt Fork Storm, who finished second in last year’s VVC standings behind Bismarck-Hennis, have two returning first-team all-league players in Max Stutsman, who was a first-team Commercial-News All-Area selection, and Ross Learnard, a second-team all-area pick.
“We are very fortunate to have that kind of experience returning,’’ said Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson. “Those guys know what it has taken to be successful and they understand what they will need to do to contribute.’’
But when asked if his team, who also returns senior Cole Taylor, an all-area honorable mention selection, was the favorite to win the league title, Johnson had a very politically correct answer.
“I think everyone is 0-0 right now,’’ he said.
And that’s true, even for the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils, who return three starters from last year’s conference championship team.
Wilde Garowski, a 6-foot-8 senior center, was a second-team all-area selection last season, while 6-5 senior guard Andy Bott and 6-1 senior foward Chase Conelly were honorable mention selections.
“Like a lot of teams in this conference this season, we have a good senior class,’’ said Bismarck-Henning coach Jon Clapp. “Wilde gives us considerable size and a force on the inside. Andy is a very good shooter from the perimeter and a touch matchup at 6-5. While Chase Connelly is a guy that does a little bit of everything for us on both ends of the court.’’
The Blue Devils, who were the runners-up to the St. Joseph-Ogden Spartans in the Class 2A regional, also return a pair of reserves, senior Dustyn Ingram and sophomore Dylan Allen, who figured to assume starting roles when Bismarck-Henning opens its season on Monday night at the Cornjerker Classic.
“Dylan is going to take over our ball handling duties and the experience he gained last year as a freshman should help him out a lot,’’ Clapp said.
While Salt Fork, which opens on Monday night at the Tri-County Thanksgiving Tournament, and Bismarck-Henning would be considered the top two favorites heading in the year, there is a group of teams right behind them that could challenge.
The Westville Tigers have five seniors and three of them are returning starters from a team that finished third in the league standings.
“I think we’ll be a fairly good defensive team and we should have several kids that can score the ball,’’ said Millis about his squad, which did suffer a setback before the season started.
Senior point guard Tanner Cox sustained a knee injury during the football season and he will definitely miss the first two months and could miss the entire season. That leaves Westville with returning starters Jeffery Thompson and Kyle Brazas, while Dalton Hilligoss and Jordan Romo were key contributors coming off the bench a year ago for the Tigers.
“The key for us is being consistent and taking care of the basketball,’’ said Millis, whose tallest player on his roster is junior Justin Ottino at 6-3. “We don’t have a lot of size, so we’re working really hard to boxing out and rebounding.’’
While Bismarck-Henning, Salt Fork and Westville, each have three returning all-area picks this season, so does Hoopeston Area, Milford and Oakwood.
The Hoopeston Arean Cornjerkers will be led by the trio of Brennan Crose, Daniel Lawson and Mason Layden.
“Hoopeston had a good summer,’’ Clapp said.
The Bearcats of Milford, under the direction of Hall of Fame coach John Spezia, have four two-year returning letter winners on its roster as Milford returns four starters, along with its top three scorers a rebounds from a year ago. Senior Jeff Cann and junior Alex Portwood each averaged 13 points per game.
Oakwood coach Doug Robinson will once again have one of the bigger teams in the VVC led by senior Skyler Slade and junior Parker Lee.
The Chrisman Cardinals, who have been contenders for the VVC title in nearly every year of the league’s existence, will be led by senior Wyatt Avenatti and Ty Bolen.
Georgetown-Ridge Farm returns senior all-area pick Dylan Bina at guard along with 6-4 junior Aaron Scott at forward.
Armstrong-Potomac and Schlarman Academy, each have one all-area selection returning this year, and both the Trojans and the Hilltoppers will have first-year coaches on their benches.
Jason Henton, a former standout at Danville High and Danville Area Community College, takes the reigns at Schlarman Academy. Senior Chris Kuchefski is the top returning player for the Hilltoppers.
Sean O’Brien is the new coach at Armstrong-Potomac and the Trojans will have a veteran group with nine seniors, including Shawn Johnson, an all-area selection a year ago.
Bismarck-Henning and Hoopeston Area will open the season at the Cornjerker Classic, starting Monday.
Georgetown-Ridge Farm and Salt Fork get their year started with the Tri-County Thanksgiving Tournament, which also starts Monday.
Armstrong-Potomac and Oakwood will play in the Interstate Classic at Paxton-Buckley-Loda, and that tournament starts on Monday.
Schlarman Academy will host the Hilltopper Classic, begining Monday, while Chrisman is in the Cumberland Thanksgiving Tournament.
Only Milford and Westville are not in a Thanksgiving Tournament. The Tigers will open their season on Dec. 3 against Notre Dame de LaSalette, while the Bearcats will play at Armstrong-Potomac on Dec. 5.