NORTH CANTON One year ago, Hoover and Jackson were in a duel for Federal League boys basketball supremacy. Twelve months later, the Vikings and Polar Bears could scarcely look more different as they set out on another campaign.
The two teams graduated a combined 14 seniors from what were two of Stark County’s best teams last season and as the Vikings embark on the new year, the question is whether they can retool quickly enough to keep their spot in the league race.
"We have a much different group this year. We lost four senior starters and our top two guys off the bench were seniors," head coach Todd Blackledge said. "Other than (coach’s son and senior forward) Eli (Blackledge), we have some seniors back, but they haven’t played a lot of varsity basketball."
Eli Blackledge, a 6-foot-8 post player, figures to be a central part of the Hoover attack, but Todd Blackledge doesn’t want to simply run an offense predicated on stationing his son in the low post, throwing the ball in to him and basing the rest of the game plan off of that.
The veteran coach believes that although many of the faces in the lineup are new at the varsity level, there are pieces in place to make Hoover a contender in the league race again this season. Seniors Nick Bunnenburg and Yianni Kantzos are two of those faces and both figure to see their minutes rise this season.
"Nick Bunnenburg, when everything is said and done, has a chance to be as good of a shooter as we’ve seen at Hoover," Blackledge said.
Others, including seniors John Keller and Nate Fontes, will bring size to the roster and with 6-foot-3 senior Alex Porter also in the mix, the Vikings look to have good depth on the front line.
While several members of the rotation will be either new to varsity basketball or new to the starting lineup, Blackledge likes the fact that there are plenty of potential contributors on the roster. As last season showed with Jackson’s run to the league and state titles, talent at the top is only part of the equation.
A team also needs a strong rotation so it doesn’t lose steam when its stars go to the bench. If the five seniors and five juniors on the roster can settle in and find good chemistry, it should go a long way toward a winning season.
"We have more depth than a year ago and over the season, that should be helpful," Blackledge said.
He admitted that the early part of the season could be a learning experience, but believes that if the Vikings can weather any early bumps in the road, they should hit their stride later in the year.
With Jackson and Lake also having graduated major pieces of their league-contending teams from last season, the three perennial favorites in the Federal League race all have questions to answer as the season begins.
Hoover will get a slightly later start than most of its rivals, as Blackledge’s job as a broadcaster for ESPN’s college football coverage means he’s on the road for work the first weekend of December when most teams kick off their seasons.
Instead, the Vikings will wait a few extra days and start their season Dec. 5 against Kenmore-Garfield before diving into league play three days later against GlenOak, followed by a Dec. 12 tilt with Lake. From there, it’s full speed into a schedule without many breaks and with a long lists of tests that will show whether this edition of the Vikings is title-worthy.
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