There wasn’t a whole lot of mystery heading into last season’s Eastern Valley Conference basketball season.
There was Little Chute, and then everyone else, and it played out that way as the Mustangs went 16-0 and finished five games better than their closest conference pursuer.
But with Kenneth Lowe, Turner Botz, Mitch Ciske and others having moved on from the Mustangs, the conference title race isn’t nearly so one-sided this season.
“I would say that pretty much the majority of coaches in our conference are telling their teams, ‘We got a shot to win this thing,’ ” Xavier coach Matthew Klarner said. “There was a lot of graduation and therefore a lot of opportunity for someone to step up and we’ll see what happens.”
Little Chute, which finished 25-2 overall last season and advanced to the Division 3 state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Aquinas, isn’t about to just sit down and give up its title without a fight.
“Replacing two D-I players (Lowe and Botz) will not be an easy task,” Little Chute coach Mickey Martin said. “Our seniors have been waiting patiently to show what they can do. After practicing against Botz, Lowe and company night after night for the past year, I believe they are ready.”
Graduation losses hit almost every Eastern Valley team hard, which should make for an interesting and wide-open race for this year’s title.
Xavier lost four starters to graduation, but the Hawks do bring back Matt Ferris, who averaged better than 11 points and four rebounds a game last season, and several other experienced players who will finally get their chance.
Klarner thinks the Hawks can contend, if the commitment to play defense is there from the beginning.
“I think we have to be better defensively than we were at the beinning of the last two seasons,” Klarner said. “If we’re going to be a team that contends in this conference, we’re going to have to play good defense in December and great defense in January and February.”
While there is no clear-cut favorite, three teams to keep an eye on that could make the biggest jumps this year are Freedom, Winneconne and Waupaca.
Freedom returns six players, including four who started, and should improve on its fifth-place finish from last year. Winneconne won only four conference games last season, but returns three starters, including talented guard Zach Horn. And Waupaca brings back seven players, including all five starters from a squad that went 2-14 last season.
Predicted order of finish: 1. Xavier; 2. Freedom; 3. Little Chute; 4. Winneconne; 5. Waupaca; 6. Fox Valley Lutheran; 7. Ripon; 8. Clintonville; 9. Berlin.