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Northeast Kansas League High School Basketball Season Preview
By Jonny Kane and Justin Fluke
Copyright: MSC Sports

NEKL Girls Preview

For the first time in the past four seasons there was a new league champion as Pleasant Ridge captured the Northeast Kansas League title on the girl’s side by two games over Jeff County North. It’s going to be tough to repeat for the Lady Rams with the loss of their two top scorers to graduation, so this year we could have yet another league champion. This season the league race appears to be the widest open it has been in the last several seasons with realistically four teams with a shot to claim the 2019-20 league crown.

Jackson Heights looks to be the favorite as the Cobras are coming off their first state tourney appearance since 1999 and returns four starters and three other key role players for Coach Dan Shupe's 7th season. The Cobras are loaded with upperclassman that have at least a couple years varsity experience, including one of the best in the state in Kylie Dohl. Jackson Heights isn't one of the tallest team but constant pressure defensively gives them many easy buckets.

After winning 14 games two seasons ago the Pleasant Ridge girls put together one of the best seasons in school history last year finishing 18-2 overall and 13-1 Northeast Kansas League play which was good enough to take the league crown. Pleasant Ridge enters the 2019-20 season with several question marks including a new head coach as Steve Watkins takes over the program for his first head coaching gig with two starters back and a need for young players to step up and contribute right away.

For the second straight season the Jeff County North girls finished with an 18-4 record and if it wasn’t for an overtime loss to Pleasant Ridge in the final game of the regular season the Chargers would have had a share of the Northeast Kansas League Championship. Steve Noll enters his 15th season as the head man with three starters back and high hopes of competing for another league title along with making a deep playoff run in Winchester.

The Oskaloosa Bears enter this season with some of the most optimism in the league despite winning just four total games a year ago. Of the Bears 17 losses, 10 of those were by eight points or less and with four starters back off that teams there is a reason to be excited. Andrew Kraxner enters his fourth season with high hopes of now competing at the top of the NEKL.

Horton could be a sleeper team despite struggled the past couple years. Kertis Keehn is back for a second season and has all five starters back including four seniors that have been on varsity their entire high school career.  The Chargers need some confidence and better health after having only 10 healthy girls much of last winter. 

For the first time since the 2014 season the ACCHS girls put together a winning campaign in their first season in the Northeast Kansas League going 15-7 overall. ACCHS turned it on late and even made it to the sub-state semifinals under sixth year head coach Mike Eckert, but all five starters from last season are gone leaving several question marks heading into the season.

The Valley Falls Dragons saw their run of four consecutive NEKL regular season championships snapped last season as they finished just 7-8 in league play under first-year head coach Jordan Hale. The Dragons must find a way to replace the production of all-state selection Reagan Kirkwood who has graduated along with two other starters leaving the Lady Dragons with several question marks heading into the year.

McLouth took a huge step in the right direction a year ago led by a large senior class that won nine games which was a five-win improvement from the 2017-18 season. With the graduation of most of the production off last year’s team the switch has been made to Phillipe McCree who has several question marks heading into the 2019-20 season.
After exploding for 14 wins in the 2017-18 season the Maur Hill-Mount Academy Ravens took a step back last season finishing just 3-16 in what was a tough Northeast Kansas League. Maur Hill-Mount Academy struggled all season long figuring out how to pull out close games as they had six losses by 10 points or less and three losses by five points or less. After the tough season the Lady Ravens enter 2019 with a new head coach for the first time in six years as Brad Kunecke has moved to the boy’s program and Luke Noll takes over needing to replace five key seniors.

NEKL Boys Preview

For the second straight season the Maur Hill-Mount Academy boys claimed the Northeast Kansas League title with a perfect league record and made a second consecutive trip to Hutchinson and the 3A State Tournament. The Ravens are poised again to make a run at the league title and trip to state with perhaps the leagues two best players returning, but Valley Falls and Pleasant Ridge each have several starters returning, which should make for a fun and exciting year in the NEKL.

The Maur Hill-Mount Academy boys are coming off one of the best seasons in school history after winning 23 games a season ago, winning a Northeast Kansas League title and making it to the Class 3A State Tournament for the second consecutive season. Despite all that success the Ravens will have a new coach this season, as Brad Kunecke replaces long-time head coach Tim Van Dyke who coached his 25th season at MH-MA last year. Coach Kunecke must find a way to replace six letter winners from a season ago but brings back two starters that should be two of the best players in Northeast Kansas.

One of the most exciting teams heading into last season was the McLouth Bulldogs who delivered with an 18-6 overall record and a 13-3 league record which was good enough for second place. It was the most wins since 2005 for the Bulldogs who advanced all the way to the state tournament which ended with an opening round exit in a loss to Pitt-Colgan. Most of those starters are gone for fourth-year head coach Steve Lilly who has several question marks heading into the 2019-20 season.

Perhaps the most exciting team heading into the year is the Valley Falls Dragons who enter the season with plenty of optimism after winning 16 games a season ago. Just two starters return off that team that finished third in the league standings, but nine letter winners are back leaving Coach Caleb Gatzemeyer with high hopes heading into the year. He brings back a group that can play style they need to making them one of the most dangerous teams night in and night out.

The 2019 season was one to forget for the ACCHS Tigers as they failed to pick up a win in what was a loaded Northeast Kansas League on the boy’s side. Numbers were up and Tigers did have close games against Horton and Jeff County North, but ultimately too much inexperience in close games proved to be the achilies heel for ACCHS. Although last season was tough there’s new life in Effingham heading into 2019 with a new coach as Troy Hoffman takes over the program and will look to get the Tigers back to playing pressure defense, rebound at both ends, own the paint and sprint the court in order to reach their full potential this season.

After finishing with 14 wins two seasons ago the Jeff County North boys took a step back last season finish just 7-14 in the first season under new head coach Tonya Kramer who replaced long-time head man Jim Brickell. Three starters and six letter winners return for JCN who will look to not only get back to a winning record but also back to the top of the NEKL.

For the second consecutive season the Pleasant Ridge boys finished with an overall record of 9-12 and finished fifth in what was a stacked Northeast Kansas League. The Rams had an extremely young team and struggled at times but got better as the year progressed which should set up an exciting season for head coach Pat Battle who is about to start his 15th season at the helm. Four starters and eight total letter winners return for Coach Battle giving the Rams high hopes heading into the start of the 2019-20 season.

Coach Chris Brown isn't sure how many of the Jackson Heights  football guys will be fully healthy and available for this basketball season as he looks to replace all  five senior starters from last year's 10-10 team. Several sophomores are asked to step up and new leaders must emerge with some consistency for the Cobras to improve. 

Horton has five players back with some varsity experience but not much size or proven scoring threats. Things should be smoother in a second season with Coach Josh Lutz who is asking for more commitment and chemistry within the Charger squad. Horton also has some depth questions to be answered as they look to regroup and find some renewed confidence. 

The Oskaloosa boys have most question marks heading into the 2019-20 season with just one starter back off a team that went 11-11 a year ago. The Bears do bring back eight letter winners but of those eight just four guys have any substantial time at the varsity level including 90 percent of the team’s scoring gone. Coach Jeremy Rockhold enters his fourth season with perhaps his biggest coaching job ahead of him needing several underclassman to step up in order to be successful.

©2020 MSC Sports
Hiawatha, KS 66434
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