BERNE – Just down the street from South Adams High School, at U.S. 27 and Main Street, there is a large sign reading “State Bound Stars.” Around the larger sign are a dozen or so smaller signs that say “Starfire Nation” and yellow and black bunting.
The South Adams football team's first-ever trip to the state championship this week has been a sensation in Berne. It's also left the Starfires' boys basketball team more than a little short-handed in preseason practice.
“My entire top seven plays football,” second-year South Adams coach Josh Hendrixson said. “We're just waiting, hopefully (the football team) can go on and win a state championship and then we can get to basketball.”
The Starfires did not have a single varsity player at practice in their first six workouts – not only were the football players out, but other players missed practices due to the coronavirus. That's not ideal for a team that has high expectations for this season; multiple conference coaches mentioned the Starfires first when discussing favorites for the Allen County Athletic Conference title this season.
And well they should. South Adams went from 2-21 in 2018-19 to 13-11, the sixth-largest improvement by wins in the state. That team did not graduate any seniors, so the Starfires have everyone back, including second-team All-ACAC Trey Schoch and his 14 points per game and first-teamer James Arnold, who is currently trying to quarterback the football team to a state title.
Arnold averaged 16.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists last season, leading the basketball team with the same poise that he exhibits on the gridiron.
“James is one of those guys that's really important to us on both sides of the floor,” Hendrixson said. “There's really no place offensively that he can't score. ... I really think he can play all five positions on the court. ... Defensively, as much as we change defenses (the Starfires have as many as seven to eight defenses in their playbook), he really keeps us together and keeps the continuity on that end.”
The Starfires miss Arnold and his fellow football players in practice. Even with a couple of non-football-playing varsity players back, they still have had only six players at their practices in recent days. Without enough players to play a five-on-five scrimmage, South Adams practices consist of competitive drills meant to improve individual skill and conditioning.
“It's kind of difficult because you don't get breaks between guys (during drills) and most of the guys that are here are underclassmen,” said senior Colby Bullock, the only varsity player at Tuesday's practice. “So I gotta really step up and be that senior leader and show them the best example of how to be the best basketball player they can be.”
On the other hand, Bullock said he expects to be in superior physical shape when the season begins. The same cannot be said of the football players, who will need some time to get their legs under them on the court.
“They're not necessarily in basketball shape,” Hendrixson said. “It takes a few weeks to get them there, with their legs and their lungs. ... Football is done more in spurts and basketball is continuous.”
As of Thursday, the Starfires are set to open their season Dec. 9 against Winchester.
South Adams might well be the ACAC favorite, but it will be a couple weeks into the season before anyone, including the Starfires themselves, know how good they can be.
5 Players to watch
Joe Reidy, Woodlan: The 6-foot-7 Reidy makes Woodlan's position-less basketball possible. He's as versatile as they come and, still only a junior, he continued to get stronger in the offseason.
Hayden Nern, Bluffton: The conference's leading scorer last season is back for more, playing for a new coach and trying to keep the Tigers at the top of the ACAC heap despite significant youth around him.
James Arnold, South Adams: Arnold will return to the hardwood as soon as he finishes leading the Starfires' football team in the Class 2A state championship game Saturday. The rest of the league probably wishes the gridiron season lasted a little longer.
Luke Saylor, Heritage: The Patriots are rebuilding and Saylor could be there when the wave crests. He averaged 12.5 points as a freshman last season and is only getting better.
Ethan Polling, Adams Central: The Flying Jets lost all-conference stars Lucas Van De Weg and Ben Voirol, so Polling will have to pick up some of the slack. He averaged eight points and six rebounds as a freshman last season.