Belleville West boys basketball coach Joe Muniz is convinced the Maroons won’t be a one-man show this season.
Sure, Division I prospect EJ Liddell, a Class 3A-4A first-team all-state selection as a sophomore last year, is going to do plenty of damage. But Muniz said the 6-foot-7 Liddell will have enough support to make the Maroons a contender to win the Southwestern Conference championship.
“This is one of the more anticipated seasons at Belleville West that I can remember, similar to Bill Schmidt’s last year (2003-04),” said Muniz, in his 14th season. “Part of that is the season we had last year, finishing on a high and winning the regional and having a great (sectional) game against Edwardsville. Having EJ coming back (helps), and we’ve got a good group of juniors and seniors coming back as well.”
The Maroons were 20-9 overall and 10-4 in the SWC last year. They lost just once in February and finished 9-2 in their last 11 games.
Liddell averaged 19.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, production the Maroons expect he will exceed this season even with the return of 6-5 junior Keith Randolph and the addition of 6-3 senior Malachi Smith, a transfer from Belleville East. Smith has made a verbal commitment to Wright State.
“Obviously, you add a kid like Malachi and that only enhances your team,” Muniz said. “He looks good. He’s shooting the ball well. He has length and size. He’s seeing the floor well. He’s a quality kid and fits in very well with the kids we have in our program.”
Randolph averaged 6.4 points and 3.1 rebounds last year. With a year under his belt, the 242-pounder could boost those numbers.
Joining Liddell, Smith and Randolph in the lineup will be 5-9 junior Lawrence Brazil III and one of three other possibilities: 6-2 senior Justin Edwards, 5-11 senior Curtis Williams and 6-2 junior Jaylin Mosby.
Senior Zion Woodie and juniors Marcellus Romious, Cameron Clark and Demerius Richmond complete the 11-player roster.
“We’ve got 11 kids dressing varsity and all 11 can play,” Muniz said. “It’s going to be one of those situations where we may have to utilize everybody.”
Muniz said the Maroons must have plenty of scoring options to take pressure off Liddell.
“I think it’s important for everybody that plays to score – or have the ability to score,” Muniz said. “The thing this year’s team is going to be able to do is score in many different facets and many different ways. I don’t think teams can just rely on saying, ‘We’re going to stop EJ.’ There’s too many other guys who can score.”
Three players from last season did not return: Will Lanxon, Will Matthews and Hunter Grupe. Lanxon opted to focus on football and baseball, his two favorite sports.
East St. Louis Flyers
The Flyers have another new coach in Fernando Stevenson, a 1992 graduate of East St. Louis who spent nine years there as an assistant.
Stevenson will have two of the best players in the metro-east in 6-7 junior Terrence Hargrove Jr. and 6-9 senior Joe Reece, who has committed to Old Dominion. Reece transferred to East St. Louis from Vashon High in St. Louis.
Hargrove, who has offers from Saint Louis University, Illinois State, Missouri and Cleveland State, averaged 13.4 points and 10.9 rebounds as a sophomore.
“He’s one of our key returning guys,” Stevenson said. “He’s not afraid of the bright lights. And more than that, he’s a really outstanding kid who does the right things in the community and in the classroom. He has some really good parents. They’re no-nonsense and emphasize the student piece of student-athlete. I piggyback off that.
“Terrence is such an easy guy to coach. He’s such a humble kid and he has talent that not a lot of kids possess.”
Reece is a versatile player who is listed on some websites as being a slender 180 pounds, but Stevenson said it’s more like 165 pounds. Stevenson, however, marvels at Reece’s abundance of skills.
“He can handle (the ball), he’s a great shooter and a good passer,” Stevenson said. “If you look at him, you would think he should be in the post somewhere. But this guy floats around the perimeter and utilizes his skills to his advantage. We’re working on the physicality piece. We want him to be skinny-strong, if that makes sense. With the addition of some of the football players ... he’s getting some real physicality in practice.”
Other starters, at least in the early stages of the season, are 5-10 senior shooting guard James Collins, 5-7 sophomore point guard Jabril Olivaria and 6-3 senior forward Jareel Scott. Depth will be provided by 5-9 sophomore Jashawn Anderson, 6-5 senior Terrion Williams, 5-10 senior Shamon Jefferson, 6-4 senior Getaveion Edwards, 6-2 senior Imunique Williams and 6-0 junior Traeveion Jones.
“We’re going to play an up-tempo style of basketball,” Stevenson said. “We’ve got a bunch of new guys. There are quite a few seniors that didn’t get the opportunity to play varsity last year. They’ll be good players this year.”
The Tigers graduated 1,000-point scorers Mark Smith, AJ Epenesa and Oliver Stephen, but return 6-7 senior Caleb Strohmeier and 5-11 senior Jack Marinko.
Smith, who was Mr. Basketball in Illinois and the News-Democrat’s Class 3A-4A Player of the Year, is a freshman starter at the University of Illinois. Epenesa is playing football at Iowa and Stephen is a freshman basketball player at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
The Tigers were 30-2 overall last season and won the SWC with a 13-1 mark. They advanced to the Class 4A super-sectional before falling to Chicago Simeon.
Coach Mike Waldo, in his 30th season, is adept at putting his players in positions to succeed. Caleb Strohmeier, a 6-7 senior, and Jack Marinko, a 6-0 senior, return from last season, but will be surrounded by relative newcomers to the varsity.
Marinko scored 28 points and made five 3-pointers Tuesday as the Tigers opened the season with a 47-44 victory over DeSmet. Strohmeier added nine points and junior Malik Robinson hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Juniors Jaylon Tuggle and AJ Robertson round out the starting lineup. Senior RJ Wilson and juniors Matt Stopka, Grant Schaefer and Lavontas Hairston provide depth despite having no varsity experience.
The Eagles, who were 14-15 last season, return one of the top players in the metro-east in 6-0 senior Jordan Holmes, who averaged 20.9 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Jon Peterson, a 6-6 junior who averaged 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, and Cole Khoury, a 6-8 junior, provide size in the paint. Senior guards Brennen van Breusegen and Jared Germain join Holmes in the lineup, with help from 6-3 senior Drew Worley, 6-1 senior Mitch Huebner, 6-1 junior Riley Hubler, 5-10 sophomore Sam Horner and 6-0 sophomore Jacob O’Connor.
“We have the possibility of having a fun and exciting season,” 13th-year Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said. “We return an elite point guard (Holmes), good size (Peterson and Khoury) and four to five wing players who are athletic and understand the game very well.”
Columbia dropped its season opener Monday, 61-54 to Mascoutah despite 31 points by Holmes.
“He’s the best player I have coached,” Sandstrom said of Holmes. “We played all of our youth last year to prepare for the ’17-’18 and ’18-’19 seasons. We can play a variety of different ways led by our all-state candidate, Jordan Holmes.”
The Cougars are coming off a 27-5 season and a berth in the Class 3A sectional semifinals. They return 6-9 senior Tyler Joest, who averaged 10.3 points and should be one of the better players in the area.
“Tyler’s our only returning player with much varsity experience, so there’s going to be a learning curve,” Central coach Jeremy Schubert said. “But hopefully with that learning curve, we can get it right and we can be one of those (successful) teams. We do have some expectations. The kids coming in know there’s a tradition here.”
Joest is a versatile offensive player who can stretch defenses with his ability to shoot 3-pointers. On defense, he blocks and alters shots in the paint.
“Our success is going to stem from our defense,” Schubert said. “When Tyler plays hard on the defensive end, it carries over to our other players because he’s a 6-9 presence. If Tyler will lead our defense with our point guard (5-9 senior Karson Fehrmann), I think we can accomplish our goals by the end of the year.”
Simon Thomas, a 6-4 junior, is expected to ease the offensive burden on Joest. Thomas earned more playing time late last season and appears ready for an expanded role.
“I look for Simon to average in double figures,” Schubert said. “His game is trying to get to the basket. Simon is pretty good off the dribble. We’re working on his 3-point shot. That’s where he needs improvement. But coming off a screen from 15 feet, he’s kind of like (Columbia’s) Jordan Holmes.”
Mason Weems, a 6-5 senior, also has earned a spot in the lineup. Others players battling for time include 6-0 senior Gavin Heimann, 6-2 junior Camden Wempe, 5-10 junior Calvin Rakers, 6-2 sophomore Bradon Thomas and 5-11 sophomore Jackson Haag.
Central dropped its opener 63-57 on Tuesday in the Effingham St. Anthony Tournament. Joest (18 points) and Thomas (13) led the Cougars.
Others to watch
Mascoutah, under first-year coach Justin Love, recorded a noteworthy 61-54 victory Monday over Columbia in the Mascoutah Tip-Off Classic as 6-3 junior Malik Green led the Indians with 23 points. Blake Weiss, a 6-6 senior, is a developing post player.
Wesclin, meanwhile, opened the season Monday with a 67-60 victory over Waterloo in the same tournament, then followed it up Tuesday with a 62-45 win over Mascoutah. The Warriors won a Class 2A regional championship last year and return plenty of experience.
Nate Brady, a 6-6 junior, and Brandon Courtney, a 6-4 senior, had 15 points apiece for the Warriors, coached by Brent Brede. Hunter Ottensmeier, a 6-5 senior, scored 13 points, and 6-3 senior Justin Kellogg had 10.