Can anyone catch Norwell?
After the Knights went 22-2 overall and 7-0 in Northeast 8 play last season, that's what the rest of the conference is asking itself as the boys basketball season gets underway. The answer remains unclear as the Knights return plenty of talent from a team that was one of the state championship favorites in Class 3A when last year's tournament was canceled, but it will be far from an easy road to a second straight conference title for coach Mike McBride's team.
“Our conference is a conference in which every night is a grind-it-out affair,” said McBride, who is entering his fifth year leading Norwell. “You've gotta really be tough-minded, you've gotta really play well. All the coaches do a nice job. I think it's shaping up to be a very competitive league.”
Among the teams poised to challenge the Knights is New Haven.
The Bulldogs are coming off an 18-6 campaign and a sectional championship after an upset victory over Homestead in the title game.
Last year's NE8 runner-up – New Haven's only conference defeat was a 54-45 loss at Norwell – lose top scorer Donovynn Lewis, who averaged 15.5 points, plus all-conference guard Jamarr Hutchins, but bring back a core of four starters that “hasn't skipped a beat,” according to coach Bruce Stephens.
Among that group is first team all-conference performer Thomas Latham, who scored 14.6 points per contest last season; Jakar Williams, a tough inside presence; and Dre Wright, whom Stephens called one of the three best defensive players in the area. It also includes sophomore Darrion Brooks, brother of former North Side star and current Kentucky Wildcat Keion Brooks Jr. The younger Brooks is on his way to making his own legacy as a high schooler.
“I definitely believe that this team is capable of reaching those heights,” Stephens said of building off last season's success. “We come back a little bit more physical, a little bit taller and a lot more experienced with some guys that are used to playing. ... These guys want to win, they hold each other accountable.”
Another challenger for Norwell's throne is Leo, a program that is coming off its first sectional championship since 2002 and most of the important pieces from that squad.
The Lions went 19-7 in 2019-20 and bring back all-conference performers Blake Davison, a four-year varsity letterman, Zack Troyer and junior D.J. Allen. Allen and Troyer are 6-foot-5 and will pair with 6-5, 260-pound Landen Livingston, a sought-after offensive line recruit on the football field.
“We have three teams that are defending sectional champs (Norwell, Leo and New Haven) and all three of those teams are really bringing back almost a full squad,” Stephens said. “Leo's going to be really tough. The Davison kid is fantastic, the Allen kid, it's just another year under his belt, so they're going to be really good.”
But the conference is more than the talented top three. East Noble is trying to bounce back from a relatively pedestrian season and will lean on 6-8, 320-pound Chris Hood and his deft touch inside. Huntington North brings back a pair of second-team All-NE8 players in Zach Hubartt and Sam Thompson but will have to defend better to contend, according to coach Craig Teagle.
“It's a really good conference, a lot of competition,” Teagle said. “Besides New Haven and Leo, I would think the rest of us are a little more even.”
5 Games to watch
Homestead at New Haven, Dec. 9: An early-season clash between a Homestead team most project to be the best in the area and a Bulldogs squad that knocked the Spartans out of the state tournament last season.
East Noble at Columbia City, Dec. 18: The Eagles' first NE8 game in their new gym is against a Knights team trying to climb back up the conference standings after a .500 season in 2019-20.
Norwell at Leo, Jan. 9: Defending champion Norwell gets a midseason oad test against a loaded Lions. team.
New Haven at Leo, Jan. 15: The Lions get two of the best teams in the conference at home for back-to-back games. The NE8 title could run through Leo's gym.
Norwell at New Haven, Jan. 23: A matchup between two conference contenders that features a clash of styles: Norwell is a perimeter-oriented team, while the Bulldogs like to work the ball inside.