By Kary Booher
Trying to play as Class 2’s defending state basketball champion is hard enough. For the Hartville High School boys basketball team, despite returning three starters, it may be somewhat more of a challenge.
At least in the beginning.
As the curtain rises on the 2016-2017 season, the Eagles should be formidable again, but it could be a tough haul early for what amounts to a good problem. You see, 6-foot-10 junior center Cody Kelley – who hit a growth spurt over the summer – is returning from a knee injury but, given his size advantage, Hartville will adjust somewhat away from its suffocating pressure defense.
“We might not be able to press as much, but I think we’ll be competitive,” Hartville coach Brett Reed said. “I don’t think we’ll be as good early because we have to adjust to a new style.”
Hartville finished 29-4 last season, when it also won its second consecutive district championship. The three returning starters are point guard Dune Piper, forward/guard Deric Jones and guard Jace Keith.
Wyatt Ward and Braden Keith also could be in the mix for starting roles, with Crane sophomore transfer Wyatt Mahan, 6-foot senior forward James Schmidt and freshman Holton Simmons likely off the bench.
However, the team was a patchwork through its summer schedule. That’s left an unknown element hanging as the season begins.
“They had a good summer, but we never really had all of our guys healthy,” Reed said. “I think we were 21-4, but we never had a full squad, so we don’t really know (what we will be).”
Kelley, who underwent surgery to stabilize his knee cap, fortunately has returned. Without him, the Eagles may not lose their pressure defensive identify fully, but they arguably could be bolstered in the half court as he alters shots and, on offense, give Hartville tremendous size for any team, let alone a Class 2 school.
That should help offset the graduations of Class 2 Player of the Year Ryan Ward and All-Summit Conference and all-district guard Grant Dedmon.
Fortunately, Jones averaged 16 points, eight rebounds, four steals and two assists last season. He and Piper should pass 1,000 career points this season.
“He’s going to have to carry a lot of the scoring load, lock down on defense and take care of rebounding responsibilities, too,” Reed said.
Piper was an all-everything type last season when he averaged 10 points, four steals, five assists and four rebounds a game.
“He’s a great ball handler, and he’s the best on-ball defender I’ve ever seen,” Reed said. “And he give us leadership. He averaged 10 points a game last year, and he’s going to have to give us a few more points.”
Wyatt Ward, who will play shooting guard, averaged five points, one steal, one assist and two rebounds a game last year.
“He’s going to be put in more of a scoring role and needs to be more of a defender for us,” Reed said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger in the summer and fall, so hopefully that show up on the court.”
Jace Keith averaged eight points, one steal, one assist and three rebounds a game. Braden Keith played valuable minutes last season and could be a spot starter or solid sixth man.
“I think we have the toughest Class 2 schedule in the state and, I do think that helped us last year,” Reed said. “We just need to control what we can control, do little things right. If we do those things, we’ve got a chance.”