What's down is suddenly up in the Allen County Athletic Conference.
Just two years ago, South Adams went 2-21 and 0-6 in conference play. After improving to 13-11 last season with a team that had no seniors, the Starfires are now considered by some the favorite to take home the conference title.
But the rest of the ACAC isn't going to let the upstart Starfires, who haven't even been to the conference tournament championship game since 2007-08, take the crown without a fight.
Among the teams that will challenge the Starfires is the squad that beat them in the ACAC Tournament semifinals last season: Woodlan. The Warriors return Joe Reidy, a 6-foot-7 guard who was a first-team all-conference performer last season when he averaged 16.2 points. The junior added significant muscle to his wiry frame in the offseason and will lead a Warriors team missing six seniors from last season's 14-11 squad that won the conference tournament.
Reidy will be without fellow all-conference performer Mitch Mendenhall – “They always kind of had each other,” according to Woodlan coach John Baker – but he remains a dangerous, versatile star.
With Reidy anchoring the team, the Warriors play truly position-less basketball, making them a matchup nightmare for most opponents.
“I do,” Baker said when asked if he thinks his team could make a run at a conference championship. “It starts with Reidy, he's my guy, so I'm going to say he's the best player in the conference. ... He's going to be the best player on the floor most nights for us.
“A lot of people are looking at South Adams being at the top with a Jay County or a Bluffton being right there behind them, but I feel we're going to be right up there with them.”
As Baker said, Bluffton is another team that will likely be near the top of the standings. The Tigers went 6-0 in the league last year to win the regular-season title but fell to South Adams in the conference tournament.
Like Woodlan, Bluffton had two true standout players last season in first-team All-ACAC performers Tanner Cooley and Hayden Nern. Also like the Warriors, only one of that pair, Nern, is back this season.
The 6-3 senior led the conference in scoring last season at 17.4 points per game and added 5.5 rebounds per contest. He shot 52% last season and will likely have to carry even more of the offensive load as the Tigers return less than a third of their scoring.
Bluffton is a young team that is also breaking in a new coach. Karl Grau spent eight seasons as the Bluffton girls coach before moving over to coach the boys in July. He was an assistant boys coach at Carroll, Homestead and North Side, so he's familiar with coaching boys, but he's still learning his new personnel, a process made more difficult because of the way the coronavirus pandemic limited offseason workouts.
“Everybody probably thinks, 'Hey Bluffton's going to be really good like they always are every year,'” Grau said. “But we have a lot of inexperience, outside of Hayden. We're new and we're learning and we're learning a new system. It's a tough circumstance, but I've really liked the hard work the guys have put in.”
Potentially also dangerous in the conference race is Adams Central, which reached the conference tournament championship game last season and beat South Adams in February. The Flying Jets lose two all-conference players but bring back three starters, all of whom faced a brutal non-conference slate last season that included Blackhawk Christian and Norwell.
“We're not going to play anybody that intimidates us,” AC coach Aaron McClure said.
That includes county rival South Adams, whose road to a title is paved with potential speed bumps.
Bluffton at Woodlan, Jan. 9: A matchup of last year's conference champion and last year's conference's tournament champion takes place just three days before the 2021 ACAC Tournament begins.
Woodlan at Adams Central, Dec. 18: Adams Central gets its chance to prove it belongs on a Friday night against one of the league's best. Can the Flying Jets' zone defense slow down Joe Reidy?
Bluffton at South Adams, TBA: The Tigers and Starfires were supposed to play on Dec. 4, but it's been pushed back. The delay could give both teams time to be at their best for a heavyweight fight.
Woodlan at South Adams, Feb. 4: The Warriors defeated the Starfires twice last season, including a 24-point drubbing in February. This game might well decide the league's regular-season champion.
South Adams at Adams Central, Feb. 12: If South Adams beats Woodlan and is in first place in the ACAC, it will have a chance to clinch the title in its rival's gym.