Three of the top four teams in the Black Diamond East, including two-time defending champion Eldorado, will have a tough time repeating last year’s success after returning only one starter between them.
Those losses leave Fairfield and Edwards County a golden opportunity to compete for the conference title.
Fairfield (14-15, 6-4 BDCE) hasn’t won a conference title since 2015 and is coming off a third place finish last year. The Mules return three starters from last year’s team and have added Wayne City’s best player.
“We’re going to go 10 deep this year,” said Fairfield coach Scott McElravy. “We’re a lot more athletic and quicker. From sophomores and up, we like all three of our classes. They’ve had success at the lower levels since junior high. We feel like we’ve had two classes in a row that are pretty strong. We don’t have that 6-7 bruiser, but we have decent height and I like our athleticism a lot.”
Back are 6-6 senior forward Brian Estes, junior guard Wyatt Gilbert and junior 6-3 forward Kane Hixenbaugh. Senior point guard Jayzale O’Neal transferred from Wayne City where he averaged 17 points, five rebounds and 4.5 assists a game.
“Jayzale is a nice gift,” McElravy said. “He wanted to play football and they didn’t have football. He was a running back and a defensive lineman, but he’s much better at basketball.”
McElravy also returns an experienced bench in seniors guard Reese Lee and forward Cody Cantrell, junior forward Luke Dagg and sophomores guard Collin Massie and guard/forward Landon Zurliene.
Edwards County (12-19, 2-8 BDCE) is starting its third season in the Black Diamond and is coming off a down year after posting a 20-7 record.
“We have a lot of experience back with six guys having started and three of them having started together since they were sophomores,” said Edwards County coach Russ Gerlach. “It’s always great to have experience back, so most of our practice is about fine-tuning the details.”
Gerlach returns six starters and three others with varsity experience. The returning starters are seniors forward Cade Rivers, who suffered a knee injury last year, all-conference guard Cade Schnicker, all-conference forward Justin Wallace and forward Marty Schmittler and juniors guard Camden Cowger and center Andrew Rotramel.
“Schnicker has started since he was a freshman and Wallace and Schmittler have been starting since they were sophomores,” Gerlach said. “Rivers started six games last year until he tore his ACL. Rotramel had to start some games last year not only because of the Rivers injury but also we had probably the sickest team I’ve ever had as a coach.”
Also returning are senior forward Hunter Mabrey, junior guard Jordan Brock and sophomore forward Eli Berger and freshman guard Kaden Cowling will compete for playing time.
Eldorado (29-3, 10-0 BDCE) is coming off a two-year dominance of the conference, going 19-1 to win back-to-back titles for the first time since winning three in a row from 2007 to 2009. The chances of winning its third title will be much harder after losing all five starters to graduation.
“We’re very athletic and long, but not quite as long at the one and two as we’ve been the last two years,” said Eldorado coach Josh Bradley. “We’re as long and athletic at the other three positions, but we don’t have the big muscle on the inside and that’s the big difference. This year we’re going to be a more up-and-down team because we just don’t have much experience.”
Moving into the starting lineup is last year’s sixth man, senior 6-3 forward Joe Mayberry, who averaged 11 points a game last year, along with junior 6-3 forward Ladayyea Shewmaker and sophomore 6-4 guard Aiden Whitlock to give him one of the tallest teams in the conference, along with junior point guard Hunter Sizemore and senior guard Jace Jenkins.
“Shewmaker played spot minutes here and there for us and Whitlock got time as a freshman,” Bradley said. “Sizemore is going to our point guard and Jace is back in our system after not playing last year.”
In addition, Bradley has senior 6-5 center Jeremy Boulds, junior 6-3 forward Nolan Milligan, sophomore 5-11 guard Bryant Byrd and freshman 5-10 guard Townsend Barton coming off the bench.
“Boulds hasn’t played basketball since he was a freshman, but he is long and athletic,” Bradley said. “Milligan got some spot minutes early last year. Byrd is probably going to be the rotation and Townsend has an opportunity to get some minutes.”
During the first three years Kevin Wolff has been head coach of Carmi-White County, the Bulldogs have posted a 59-29 record, winning the title his first season, finishing third his second year and last year coming in second at 7-3 and finishing with a 19-11 record.
“We have only two players back that got significant varsity minutes last year, so we’re in a rebuilding mode,” Wolff said. “We’ve been lucky the last three years and saw this coming, so we weren’t shocked. We have some talent, but they are younger. We’re dressing two freshmen on the varsity and don’t expect much of them early, but they are talented kids. Our sophomore group is pretty strong, but they are unproven.”
However, Wolff also graduated his entire starting lineup, but he has his sixth man — junior guard Ethan Mahon — and his seventh — senior forward Adam Phelps — to rebuild around. Moving into the starting lineup will be senior forward Cooper Craig, senior guard August Saunders and sophomore point guard Ty Barbre.
“We’re a different squad than we’ve been,” Wolff said. “Phelps hadn’t played organized basketball until last year and he came on at the end of the season and this summer played a bunch. He’ll be our second-best player this year. Saunders was our best JV kid as a junior. He’s a hard-nosed kid who guards really well.”
Hamilton County (10-20, 3-7 BDCE) returns one starter in senior guard Hunter Braden for first year coach Doug Miller, who was the Gallatin County boys head coach the last four years, where he posted a 69-46 record with one regional title.
“We lost 92 percent of our scoring, but we played a ton of games over the summer and I like what I saw,” Miller said. “I’m very big on man-to-man defense and that takes some time to learn, so the next few months we’ll be adjusting on the fly because we have very little experience coming back.”
Battling for the starting jobs are junior guard Garrett Webb and sophomore center Robbie Morgan. In the mix are seniors center Samuel Lueke and guard Austin Gray and juniors forward Gus Walden, guard Evan Shelton, guard Zach Weaver, guard Brandon Peters and guard Kaden Richards.
“Robbie played bits and pieces last year while Garrett and Austin played a little bit,” Miller said.
Johnston City (11-20, 2-8 BDCE) lost four seniors and has only two starters back, led by 1,000 point scorer Chase Selby, who averaged 16 points a game last year. Also back is senior point guard Houston Hall.
“Hopefully our athleticism could be a difference this year and our defense can create some pressure and easy baskets — that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Johnston City coach Scott Burzynski. “Our guards have some quickness, so we want to get the rebound and play up-tempo, with the understanding (that) we always want to get a good shot. We had a really competitive summer, so I see an improvement from last year.”
Battling for positions are seniors guard Tyler Beasley, forward Dylan Fischer, center Josh McPherson, guard Donovan Hutchinson, forward Dallas Johnson and freshman guard Austin Brown.