NORTH CANTON Talk to other Federal League coaches and they’ll tell you the Hoover Vikings are a team with a chance to do serious damage this season in the Federal League.
For head coach Todd Blackledge and his team, the buzz words when it comes to meeting those expectations are depth and experience. After steady improvements over the past two seasons, the Vikings are looking to close the final segment of the gap that has separated them from perennial league powers Canton McKinley, Jackson and Lake and contend for a title this winter.
“We’re very excited about our team. The biggest thing is that our chemistry is really, really good and we have eight seniors, eight juniors and 10 sophomores who make up our rosters,” Blackledge said.
The senior class is led, according to Blackledge, by a trio of team captains that includes two starters and a top reserve. Guard Matt Chufar and forward Cam Telesz help anchor the starting lineup, while forward John Eriksen comes off the bench to boost the second unit.
“Those guys have displayed outstanding leadership to this point and with four returning starters, plus Cam (Telesz) was basically playing starters’ minutes by the end of last year, we have a lot of experience and those guys will have to lead our younger guys who don’t have as much experience,” Blackledge said.
The other top returnees include point guard Eric Sarbaugh, who will be tasked with running the Vikings’ fast-paced offense and keeping it on track for leading scorer Nathan Fox, another of the squad’s seniors.
Hoover also has a big presence in the middle in the form of the head coach’s son, 6-foot-7 junior center Eli Blackledge, who gives the Vikings a strong presence down low, and with Fox, Telesz and Eriksen all standing 6-foot-4, Hoover is one of the teams in the Federal League with the size to combat Jackson’s towering front line with four players 6-foot-5 or taller.
Unseating the Polar Bears and Blue Streaks, who have developed a habit of dueling for - and splitting - the league title in recent seasons, is a focal point for Hoover.
“It’s a tough league and there are no easy out. We’ve got a way to beat a couple of people that have been front runners lately … we have not beaten Lake, we have not beaten Jackson … we’ve had a little more success against Canton McKinley, but those are the three teams in our league that we have to find a way to compete with them,” Blackledge said. “We also have a challenging non-conference schedule and we should be fine-tuned before the tournament comes.”
Blackledge noted that Green is a program with a winning tradition and Perry and GlenOak both have energetic new coaches who will have them playing hard this season and combined with six rival gyms that are all tough places to play, Hoover has a challenging 12-game league slate in front of it.
One twist of the Federal League schedule was an early road game at GlenOak (a 66-49 win on Dec. 9) and a home battle with Lake tonight, giving the Vikings an early indication of where they stand.
Ask their coach and he - like most other league coaches - would prefer to play a few non-conference games early on as a way to settle the team into the new season
“If I had my druthers, I would rather get our feet wet with a couple more non-league games, but I like the schedule better than last year,” Blackledge said. “We opened with our first game on the road at Lake (last year) and we weren’t ready for that with some of our younger guys.”
This season, the Vikings will need their entire rotation to contribute if they’re to make good on their lofty expectations and be in a position to compete for a title when the end of the regular season rolls around. With eight seniors and eight juniors to count on, experience is in their favor. Now, they have to turn that experience into more success on the scoreboard.
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