Few things in Vermont sports galvanize communities and ratchet up statewide chatter like the high school basketball season.
There are plenty of interesting stories in Southern Vermont alone and they will start to take shape when play begins Friday night in Fair Haven, where the Division II champion Slaters launch their defense against a Springfield team with high hopes.
Rutland High begins its D-I defense Saturday against visiting Essex.
Otter Valley (D-II) and Poultney (D-IV), semifinalists last year, will try to take that next big step.
Mill River, where one of the most intriguing stories could be written, is eager to take the veil off a team that could be one of the season’s big surprises.
In Proctor, a key transfer will help the Phantoms as they try for a fourth D-IV title in the last five seasons.
One of the most compelling stories will take place in Ludlow where an experienced Black River boys team hopes to write a glorious final chapter before the school closes its doors at the end of the year.
It’s not an election year, but the Presidents will be running.
Up and down the court, that is.
“We’re still small, so we are focusing on trying to get a lot of points in transition and move the ball quick,” said coach Don Richard.
“I like that I have six or seven seniors and that they all did some work over the summer,” he said. “They’ve evolved in playing the up-tempo game that we had last year so there’s less teaching this year.”
The Presidents are also excited about returning to their own floor after the court was damaged and unplayable last season.
They graduated just one player from a team that bowed out in the first round of the Division IV tournament. Now Black River is looking at taking the next step, which is to finish the close games that got away last season and be competitive against everyone they play.
Ryan Boyle, who has great composure and a high basketball IQ, will run the show at point guard.
”He’s really evolved,” said Richard.
He’ll be backed up by Alex Kurdzick.
John Mason, a second-team MVL pick who goes strong to the basket, should lead Black River in scoring. And Jack Boyle and Bowen Stark will give the Presidents more size than they’ve had in the post for quite a while.
The Black River roster also includes Zach Paul, Ryan Sheehan, Cyrus Bickford, Aaron Merrill, Calvin Kelley, Adam Stanley and Josh Lambert, so they’ll have plenty of legs for the defense that will fuel much of the scoring.
“That’s going to be our strength,” said Richard. “We have a lot of speed. We’re going to try to force things and go, go go.”
The Presidents will open at Green Mountain next Saturday.
Run, Presidents, run.
The makeup of these Slaters sounds a lot like the 2017-18 version and everyone knows how that worked out.
Fair Haven returns a lot of interchangeable parts and while the offense looks largely built around Cam Coloutti, the Slaters have quite a few options.
“How Cameron goes, we go, but we think we have some kids who can score and get up and down the floor,” said coach Bob Prenevost. “That’s our biggest asset, our athleticism.”
The veterans include Coloutti, a strong player who can go inside or out, Parker Morse, Andrew Ferarra, Doug Hendee, Aubrey Ramey and Joe Gannon, the forward who was promoted to varsity after last season started and became a consistent contributor.
Prenevost will use 11 players so depth will also be a big factor.
The likely starting five will be Coloutti and Ferrara at guard and Gannon, Ramey and Morse in the frontcourt.
“I think we can put some kids on the floor that are long and lean and can pose some defensive problems,” Prenevost said.
Forward Jake Grenier is back with the program after a year off and the JV squad will send four newcomers to the varsity. They are Kohlby Murray and Zach Ellis, sophomores who will play a lot of minutes off the bench, Sam Manley, a junior with the outside shot that will enable the Slaters to use Coloutti in the paint more often, and Andrew Lanthier.
Lanthier and Ramey, juniors who are building impressive multi-sport resumes, could be ready for breakout seasons.
The Slaters open at home Friday against Springfield.
Green Mountain is long, lean, athletic and experienced, with good size for a Division III team. What could possibly hold back the Chieftains?
“It’s always been (a lack of) scoring,” said coach Brian Rapanotti. “We’ve struggled making decisions and making the right play at the right time. That’s going to be the big thing for this group. We finally have some shooters.”
One of them is Dylan McCarthy, who is making a good impression as a freshman and will start at off-guard. He can put the ball on the floor and has range well beyond the 3-point arc, as does Ty Merritt, another player in the current eight-man rotation.
Three-year starter James Anderson will run the point. The junior showed good judgment in a scrimmage against Woodstock.
“I think this will be a big year for him,” the coach said.
Chase Ordway Smith will try to make things happen with his athleticism in the paint and his twin brother, Brooks, will do the same at guard.
Six-foot-2 Evan Church is the Chieftains’ center, while Sawyer Pippen and Skyler Klezos will also be in the mix in GM’s up-tempo style.
The Chieftains are still a young group with four seniors, but stand a good chance of getting past the first round of the tournament, where last year’s season ended.
“I think we’ve got the potential to win 15 games,” Rapanotti said. “I think it’s just a matter of if we’re going to buy in and make good decisions.”
The Chieftains will open against visiting Black River on Dec. 15 and will host the annual Tip-Off Tournament beginning Dec. 18 with Twin Valley, Springfield and Mount St. Joseph Academy coming to town.
Coach Jack Rogers is big on a team that is not so big, but is strong and athletic. One reason is sophomore point guard Aidan Botti.
Rogers, who was no slouch in his playing days as a guard at West Rutland, is enamored with Botti’s ballhandling skills and decision making, something Mill River lacked last season.
“He’s grown about 5 inches and he’s got a terrific handle,” Rogers said. “He’s a very intelligent kid with great basketball instincts.”
Mill River’s intention is to use outside shooting to pull opponents out of the zone and then attack the basket with quickness and athleticism. The Minutemen are without a bonafide big man but are well stocked with athletic players in the 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2 range.
“I think there will be four or five guys who will surprise people,” Rogers said. “They practice and play so hard and use the athleticism properly. This group has a lot of potential.”
Botti and 6-foot-2 Will Farwell will be starters the year after helping the Mill River JVs go 15-5. Four-year veteran Zach Ames, Tyler Shelvy, whom Rogers calls one of the best athletes in Division II, Will Grabowski and Cole Aines will be the top six.
The majority of the squad will be sophomores and juniors so Rogers is building for the long haul.
“I like this team,” Rogers said, “and they like each other. The team chemistry is good. I hope that we will reach our potential.”
The Minutemen will open next Tuesday at home against Mount Abraham.
Imagine adding a big post presence to MSJ’s 3-point and transition games. Where would that have taken the Mounties, one of last winter’s biggest surprises, in 2017-18?
The Mounties will be easing some inside punch into their arsenal as they look for a season that carries them past the D-II quarterfinals. Big freshman Jake Williams is one of the tallest Mounties, standing a head above MSJ’s returning bigs.
“In the beginning of the year he may struggle,” says first-year coach Chris Charbonneau, who plans to use the freshman off the bench as the season begins. “He’s got a boat load of potential and one day he’s going to reach it.”
Williams showed promise in his first varsity test during last Saturday’s scrimmage against Middlebury.
“We’re looking for a little more balance offensively because everyone knows who our scorers are so if we get more from the other guys we’re going to be a powerhouse,” Charbonneau said.
Versatile Leo Carranza, returning leading scorer Logan Montilla and Maddox Traynor lead a core of 3-point snipers and MSJ also brings back Cole Blanchard, Logan Starling, Keaton Wright-Chapman and Keegan Chadburn. They were part of a pressing defense that gave many a team headaches last year. Joey Giancola, the perpetual-motion guard who starred for the JVs last year, will join that group this winter.
Traynor, Montilla and freshman Andre Prunty will play the point in a point-by-committee operation that will take advantage of MSJ’s versatility.
MSJ was one of Vermont basketball’s biggest surprises last year but the Mounties won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time.
”We don’t really feel any pressure because most of these kids love basketball and are here to play it and have fun and whatever happens, happens,” Charbonneau said. “As long as we put the work in we think good things are going to come.”
The Mounties have a tough early schedule with the first six games on the road; they open at D-I Burr and Burton on Tuesday.
Coaches won’t have to update their scouting reports for Otters games this year. Not that that’s much comfort since the Otters were speed burners who rocked all the way to the Division II Final Four at Barre Auditorium.
“I think we’re going to be able to use our size a little more than last year,” said coach Greg Hughes, another former West Rutland guard, of OV’s style.
The Otters have a group of nine seniors, including fireball guard Dylan Mackie and his former school mate Del Norwood, who transferred back to OV from MSJ. So despite the graduation of Josh Letourneau, the Otters will again have a very quick tandem in the backcourt. Both are dangerous 3-point shooters as well as being able to take take the ball to the basket.
“Del definitely fills some pretty big roles and the group of guys he came back to, he grew up with,” Hughes said. “Dylan has got a little bit of senior mentality coming in to try to lead the team and with Del back he’s bringing a lot of leadership.”
Marcus McCullough and Kam Strickland will head up the frontcourt where Kollin Bissette and Pat McKeighan will also play, and the Otters have a solid core of outside shooters that includes Tyler Rowe and Jack Adams.
Rowe began to blossom last year and Hughes expects to see more of the same.
“I am high on him,” Hughes said. “He really stepped up in football and I think he’s going to have a really big year.”
”I really enjoy these kids and I think they have something special,” Hughes said.
The Otters open next Thursday at Proctor’s Bob Abrahamson Tip-Off Tournament and could not have drawn a better opponent to test their game: they will face Windsor, a team which historically plays fast.
It’s point guard by committee this season with Robbie Brill having graduated and Levi Allen having been lost for the season with a football injury. But one thing that has not changed is that Poultney will have a Division II-sized frontcourt, which will make for some tough matchups for its D-IV opponents.
The Blue Devils bring back four players from a team that charged to the D-IV semifinals.
“I think we are way more balanced this year,” said coach Bob Coloutti. “I figure we are going to get contributions from four or five kids.”
Jon Baker returns to the program after a year off and joins Eli Rosario as the leading candidates to handle the ball. They are among a group that includes Levi Haviland, Heith Mason and Taylor Dunlap, who stepped up their games over the summer. Dunlap will be another ballhandler for the Devils.
Brill and Allen were a big part of Poultney’s scoring last year but now it shifts more to the bigs. Their roles will be more versatile so look for Mason and Haviland to do more away from the basket.
Tom Dunbar, transfer Jesse Coombs and Lucas Van Nostram will help give Poultney, which carried only eight on the varsity last year, a deeper bench.
Coloutti says Poultney looked good in scrimmage against a D-II Mill River team that was smaller yet strong and athletic.
”Making it to Barre last year, everybody’s eyes are on that,” Coloutti said. “But we try to break the season into sections. The object is to be better in March than in November.”
Poultney opens on Wednesday at Leland & Gray.
With Derek Almond graduated, it’s no secret that Proctor will count heavily on rugged Nate Greb to be the pillar of their inside scoring.
What’s to prevent the entire Marble Valley League from collapsing on the Phantoms senior?
That would be the Phantoms’ talented guards.
Brennon Crossmon transfers in from MSJ and joins two well-known PHS athletes, Joe Valerio and Conner McKearin, as 3-point shooters to stretch out defenses.
”I’m very encouraged,” said coach Jake Eaton. “(Crossmon) brings us a bonafide scorer and another ballhandler. What I really like about him is he just fits in really well. He has a high IQ and gelled really quickly with Joe and Conner, which is really a testament to those three.”
While they can all shoot the 3-ball, they’re different: Valerio is a true point guard, McKearin a hard-nosed player who goes inside and Crossmon a cross section of his two new mates. All three can handle the point, as can Jacob May, so the Phantoms will be ready to launch the offense no matter who crosses the halfcourt line with the ball.
Greb, a 6-foot-3 senior, established himself inside last season and, with classmate Jacob Plucin also in the frontcourt, could be on the verge of a big year.
”Nate has definitely made himself into a pretty good basketball player,” said Eaton. “He’s a big kid who plays hard.”
Proctor’s string of three straight Division IV titles came to an end last year but the Phantoms will be back in the mix this season.
Proctor will open against Twin Valley in the opening round of next Thursday’s Bob Abrahamson Tip-Off Tournament.
Jamison Evans and Jacob Lorman are the centerpieces as the Raiders seek to defend their second straight state championship, but titles and win streaks (40 straight at this point) are not the focus. As always, it’s about coming to work every day and getting better and who’s to argue with Mike Wood’s “next-man-up” formula for success?
Six-foot-5 Eric Coughlin and Ethan Notte are other key returnees at Rutland, which will open Saturday night at 7 p.m. against visiting Essex in the North-South Challenge.
“People know who Jamison is and who Jacob is but those guys need to understand that they’re going to draw attention and they have the ability to make other guys around them better. They’re going to need to do that,” Wood said. “The growth of the guys around them is probably going to determine how successful we are.”
While Rutland is finding ways to spread out the points, Evans, the team’s leading scorer last year, and Lorman, the sixth man, could be shouldering more scoring load earlier than later. For that reason the Raiders would like to keep them out of the point guard’s role, where Lorman could certainly be a good fit.
Enter sophomore Evan Pockette, who showed a lot of poise running the offense in a scrimmage against Drury, Massachusetts, and hit a pair of 3s as well.
”For a sophomore, he’s got good composure,” said Wood.
The Raiders ran the floor well and were very good at finding the open man.
“(Sharing the ball) is a huge point of emphasis early like it was last year,” Wood said. ”We’ve got a lot of really good pieces in place but it’s taking that next step and making sure if we’re finding the open man and getting shots for everybody.”
Coughlin, who also had a strong scrimmage, stays active around the paint on offense and defense, and can change a lot of shots with his long reach. The 6-foot-3 Evans is a flashy inside player while his outside shooting gives him a balance that is tough to defend.
The Raiders had a half-dozen players hit 3s on Saturday, including Pockette and Alex White with a couple apiece.
Malik Hendrickson, Noah and Alex White, Ryan Moore and Kyle Del Bianco could also be seeing regular minutes.
“Everybody brings different things to the table,” Wood said. “It’s up to us to put them in the right place to be successful but it’s up to them to embrace the roles we set for them.”
The Cosmos did not go to the 2018 tournament so understandably they are champing at the bit for this season to begin, even if the opener is at Fair Haven on Friday.
“There’s no one I would rather open against,” said coach Mike Ruppel. “We always know Bob (Prenevost’s) teams are well coached and well organized. We expect them to be one of our biggest tests. It gives us a chance to see where we’re at. If we can play with them we can play with anyone.”
The Cosmos expect a vastly improved season with three starters and three of the top scorers back. The Cosmos looked good in a scrimmage Monday with Fall Mountain (New Hampshire).
“Our on-ball defense was really good and when we settled down on offense we moved the ball well,” the coach said.
One of the key matchups Friday night will be the Cosmos’ Noah Zierfus, a third-year varsity player, defending Slaters’ scoring leader Cam Coloutti. Both are inside-outside players.
In addition to being their best defensive player, the Cosmos expect Zierfus to be a guy “who is scoring a bunch for us. He is a kid we try to create matchup problems with,” Ruppel said.
Damian Warner moves from point guard to shooting guard while the key task of taking good care of the ball falls to Brendan Drinell, who takes over the point and has looked good with his decision making. The Cosmos will have a motion offense, run some pressure defense and also try to get up and down the floor.
Rugged Jake Stepler is up from the JVs after recovering from an injury. “He’s a big, strong kid. We like his speed and his rebounding,” said Ruppel.
Colby Downing, the only senior, brings a good outside shot to the table and backcourt mate Owen Thibodeau has a good outside shot and had greatly improved his defense.
Ruppel says the Cosmos can go 10 deep without losing much in scoring.
”I think they are excited,” Ruppel said. “We had them everywhere we could go this summer. Their energy has been great.”
The Golden Horde managed only one victory last season, but with nearly the entire roster back, much better things are expected at Hinchey Gym this winter.
“They’re working hard and are pretty excited to get after it,” said second-year coach Jordan Tolar. ”We have a lot coming back for the next couple of years. The core of the team is staying together.”
Westside’s boys stayed busy with AAU basketball and other off-season work and are eager to shake off the mistakes committed by last year’s very youthful mix. Much of Westside’s success hinged on the performance of scorer Kyle Laughlin and while he’s back, the Golden Horde will aim to strike a good offensive balance and drastically reduce turnovers. Thirty turnovers in a game was not uncommon last year.
“We hope to cut that in half,” said Tolar. “It was a little overwhelming last year facing varsity pressure and handling the basketball.”
Ryan Smith, Tyler Serrani and Tim Blanchard are among the prospective point guards but freshman Levi Petit could well win the position before the season is over. He played JV ball as an eighth-grader last winter.
That would allow Smith, Serrani and Blanchard to go elsewhere on the floor on a team where versatility is a strength.
Westside’s top eight players are Smith, Blanchard, Serrani, Laughlin, Liam Beaulieu, Mike Barrett, Petit and Ryley Dow.
Tolar thinks Beaulieu will be a force down low and Dow, who will also play in the frontcourt, is a good passer who will have a role in a high-low offense.
”He’s really good at seeing the court,” the coach said.
“What I want to focus on this year is ball movement and being able to work off looks instead of individual play,” Tolar said. “I think we have some really good depth and on defense we want to create pressure and get out and go.”
The Horde opens at Mid-Vermont Christian on Tuesday.