OSSIAN – Norwell won the last game of the season in 2020, but the Northeast 8 champions didn't reach their ultimate goal.
The Knights went 22-2, the first 20-win season for the program since 2011-12, and finished their schedule with a victory over Mississinewa to grab a sectional title. Norwell was on the short list of potential state champions in Class 3A by that point, but the state tournament's cancellation because of the coronavirus pandemic put an end to those hopes.
Now, the Knights have to put that disappointment in the rearview mirror and try to fend off challenges to their NE8 supremacy from up-and-coming programs such as New Haven and Leo.
“Obviously it was disappointing, but I think the seniors last year handled it really well,” senior guard Eli Riley said of the shortened season. “So I think that really helped the rest of us get through that. Looking at this year, we think we have a chance to get back to the regional. ... So that's what we're striving for, to have that opportunity again that we lost last year.”
It won't be easy to stay on top of the conference or the sectional. The Knights lost three All-NE8 performers, including 6-foot-3 forward Will Geiger, who averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds.
Coach Mike McBride said Norwell will likely be one of the youngest teams in the area, but that doesn't mean the Knights don't have experience. They will be led by a sophomore, 5-11 Luke McBride, who was first-team All-NE8 as a freshman.
McBride scored 10.9 points per game last season and is a terrific shooter – he set a Norwell record for free throw percentage at 92.8% last season. He's also a plus defender on the perimeter and worked on his vertical in the offseason in the hope of grabbing more rebounds.
“Last year, we had a lot of different guys who could score and I think we'll have some different guys scoring this year, too, but I'm just focused on basics and getting to the rim and finishing at the free throw line and knocking those in,” Luke McBride said.
Mike McBride knows his son will have to take on a larger scoring role this season, but he believes he is ready, especially after watching Geiger.
“He's without a doubt an incredibly hard worker and I'm very proud of where he's at,” Mike McBride said. “But there's a lot of work to do. There's a lot of improvement to continue to work on and I think he knows that.
“It's difficult at times to be able to watch him and look at him as a father, like a regular father watching your son play because I constantly look at things from a coaching standpoint. ... But I think he's handled that very well.”
The younger McBride will have help from Riley, an All-NE8 honorable mention selection last season who also quarterbacked the football team to a 10-2 record, and fellow sophomore Lleyton Bailey, who will step in as the team's point guard.
With Geiger gone, the Knights will be somewhat undersized and they'll go to a more uptempo offense and try to get out in transition as a result. Whether that will be enough for them stay at the summit of a strong NE8 remains to be seen, but Norwell isn't conceding anything despite its losses at the top of the roster.
“We played tough games last year against Leo, New Haven and a couple other tight ones, so we think those teams are going to be gunning for us this year,” Riley said. “Those teams have a lot of good pieces back, so there are going to be a lot of dogfights this year.”
5 Players to Watch
Thomas Latham, New Haven: The Bulldogs are eyeing a conference title and the 6-foot-3 senior could lead them there after averaging 14.6 points and 8.3 rebounds last season on his way to first-team All-Northeast 8 honors.
Luke McBride, Norwell: Coach Mike McBride's son was first team all-conference as a freshman and is a deadly shooter. Defending champion Norwell will count on him after losing Will Geiger, Connor Torson and Drew Federspiel.
Blake Davison, Leo: Davison averaged 17.5 points and 5.1 rebounds last season while leading Leo in assists and steals on the way to a sectional crown. The Lions have bigger aspirations this year and Davison will be a key to reaching them.
DJ Allen, Leo: Davison is a key because Allen will provide production inside. The Lions' post averaged 11.3 points and seven rebounds. He and Davison form a solid inside-outside combo.
Chris Hood, East Noble: At 6-foot-8, Hood will be hard to miss. He was All-NE8 honorable mention last season after averaging 8.2 points and 7.3 rebounds and creates matchup problems aplenty for Knights opponents.