Not that the Churubusco-Central Noble rivalry needs any more fuel, but once again, the neighbors project to factor heavily into the Northeast Corner Conference title race.
Both squads return multiple all-NECC performers from a season ago, and with traditional league powers Angola and Westview turning over their programs to new coaches, the continuity in Churubusco and Albion may lend itself to the Eagles and Cougars battling for hardware again this year.
“(Central Noble has) some talented pieces back,” Churubusco coach Chris Paul said. “(All-NECC performer Connor Essegian is) a very good player, and they've had a nice little run. (Coach John) Bodey has done a nice job and they're confident in what they're doing.”
The Cougars claimed the first of three matchups during the 2019-20 season, posting a 63-57 victory in Albion in the NECC Tournament semifinals a night before knocking off Prairie Heights to win the tourney. But the Eagles won at home two weeks later, 70-61 to launch what turned into a 10-win streak to close the season that culminated in a 54-49 victory in the Westview Sectional championship game.
Though COVID-19 forced the IHSAA to cancel the postseason after sectionals, and the virus continues to wreak havoc with basketball schedules statewide, Bodey explained he knows his squad will be ready to take on the defending conference champs – be it with or without fans in attendance.
“We're going to be up for it because it's (Churubusco),” Bodey said. “I'm disappointed that our kids, our fans and our community won't get that experience this year. I don't think the limited crowds will impact our ability to get up for games, and especially the (Churubusco) games.”
Always a factor in the NECC, Westview faces two significant hurdles to overcome with the graduation loss of Charlie Yoder, the all-time leading scorer in LaGrange County, along with coach Rob Yoder, who won 303 games and nine sectional championships during his 17-year tenure.
On the court, several players stand ready to fill parts of what Charlie Yoder brought to the game, while on the sidelines, former Angola coach Ed Bentley will take over. Bentley's Angola squads routinely ranked among the state leaders in defensive average.
“Is he going to adopt that style,” Paul said. “Most coaches, we are who we are, and if they do that with the type of athletes they have over there, they're going to be a handful.”
Angola features a familiar face with former Hornets girls coach Brandon Appleton moving over to the boys side. Bodey figures the Hornets' staunch halfcourt defense will extend to the whole gym at times.
“I think they're going to be a little faster paced and maybe a little more fullcourt pressure,” Bodey said. “I think they may try to extend things this year.”
Brayden Bontrager's shooting ability gives Lakeland a puncher's chance against anyone in the conference, and West Noble's Brockton Miller and Austin Cripe could cause fits for NECC foes.
Prairie Heights opened last season with a 10-game win streak, but graduation losses make the Panthers the biggest question mark in the NECC. Conversely, the trio of Owen Willard, Gabe Trevino and Logan Fry could turn Eastside into the conference's biggest surprise contender.
5 games to watch
Central Noble at Angola, Dec. 4: New Angola boys coach Brandon Appleton gets the Cougars at home in his first taste of NECC boys competition.
Eastside at Prairie Heights, Dec. 12: After three nonconference games to start the season coach Ryan Abbott's Blazers face a rebuilding Panthers squad to open conference play.
West Noble at Central Noble, Dec. 18: This matchup will tell Chargers coach Ethan Marsh where his squad stands.
NECC Tournament championship, Jan. 16: The 12 schools will battle in this five-day event for the chance to play at Westview for the title.
Churubusco at Central Noble, Jan. 29: While the Eagles and Cougars could meet three times, this is the only guaranteed matchup between the league favorites.