BY JOHN DUBOIS
Four familiar faces will be in new places as the boys basketball season begins this week for several Vermilion Valley Conference teams.
Hall of Famer John Spezia returns to the area where it all began as the coach of the Milford Bearcats while former Danville Vikings coach Gary Tidwell takes over at Schlarman Academy. Former Salt Fork boys and girls coach Mike Twidwell returns to coaching at Armstrong-Potomac, while former Storm player Andrew Johnson takes over at Salt Fork. Matt Colston also joins the area coaching ranks at Hoopeston Area.
Spezia began his nearly 40 year career at Sheldon High School in 1973 and will be taking over for Mark Portwood, who stepped down to become the new principal at Cissna Park.
Spezia is best known for his time at Danville Area Community College where he won over 400 games and the 1991 NJCAA Division II national championship. He is a member of three different Halls of Fame and inherits a Bearcats team that finished 8-21 last season.
“Returning letter winners are seniors Josh Killion and Wyatt Alt, juniors Jeff Cann and Jordan Guliquist, and sophomores Alex Portwood and Jake Rogers,” Spezia said. “Killion led the team last year in scoring and assists, while Cann led in rebounding and field goal percentage.”
Well known for his work with basketball camps in the Midwest, Caribbean and Europe, Spezia will focus on the fundamentals and stress defense, shooting and passing skills.
Tidwell takes over for Pat Kelly, who is now an assistant coach for the DACC Jaguars. It will be a new beginning for the Hilltoppers in a lot of ways.
“We will have seven freshman out of 13 players in the program,” Tidwell said. “The recent renovation to the gym complex, including a new gym floor, has been inspiring for all of our teams.
“The transition to Schlarman has gone extremely well. I have a great staff with Jerry O’Neill and Mike Young, the administration at Schlarman is committed to success, and the attitude and effort of our players has been very impressive.”
The Hilltoppers are led by seniors Austin Calhoun and Andrew Kelly.
“Austin is a combo guard and the leading scorer from last years team,” Tidwell said. “Andrew is very versatile and we also return lettermen Chris Kufcheski and Maher Samawi. Michael Simmons and Gannon Hughes are the top two newcomers from the freshman group.
“My expectations for the program are simple. We want to win games by doing things the right way and to build a championship program by instilling a winning attitude both on and off the floor.”
Twidwell last coached in 2005 and inherits a Trojans team that was 12-17 last season. Seven of the eight top scorers graduated, but leading scorer Wade Rogers returns.
Twidwell coached for 11 years at South View Middle School and won two regional titles in two separate stints with the Lady Storm. He takes over for Brian Russell, who moved on to Villa Grove.
Johnson played for Twidwell at Salt Fork (2000-2003) and takes over for Aaron Hird, who moved on to become the new principal at Oakwood elementary school. Top returning players for the Storm include All-conference selections Max Stutsman and Alec Dutton along with Ross Learnard.
Colston was at Bushnell-Prarie City/Avon in Western Illinois for four seasons and had his best year in 2010-11, when he led the Spartans to 19 wins.
He inherits a Cornjerkers program with a rich tradition, but recent struggles including a 4-23 record last season. Junior Mason Layden will look to continue to build on the progress he showed at the end of last season.
Deon Mennenga returns for his fifth season at Bismarck-Henning after leading the Blue Devils to a 13-0 conference record and a VVC title last season.
The Blue Devils will have a new look after top scorers and All-Conference selections Tanner Ribbe, Krystian Ingram, and Stephen Krout graduated. Top returning players include seniors Austin Toler and Austin Rienken, along with juniors Andy Bott and Chase Connelly.
Greg Gissinger returns for his third season as the coach of the Chrisman Cardinals, who are led by senior Chris Hoult. The Cardinals have one of the richest traditions in Illinois high school basketball history, but struggled last season after a trip to the Class 1A final 8 in 2010-11.
Adam Latoz returns as the coach of the Georgetown-Ridge Farm Buffaloes, who will be looking to replace their top three scorers and All-Conference selections Korie Vire, Ryan Dieu, and Matthew Hay.
The Oakwood Comets lost top inside threat and all conference selection Cameron Lee to graduation, but senior Kyle Elliot and Skylar Slade return for coach Doug Robinson.
Long time coach Jeff Millis returns to the bench for Westville along with all conference selection Robert Elliott and top scoring threat Kyle Brazas.