By Shayne Combs,

The past few months watched two veteran groups in Piketon and Adena capture league titles and survive the tournament trail to the Sweet 16. Those two stories were fairly easy to envision back in the preseason, but as we look ahead to next year, the picture is not as clear.

On the boys’ side, I think Zane Trace and Unioto will be considered the easy picks, because both teams return a great nucleus of talent. The Pioneers – a team who lost to Final Four bound Ironton in the district championship – will return three big scorers in Pierce Mowery, Connor Smith, and Tyler Hinty including a great floor general in Eric Hutton. Unioto (a team who also lost to a Final Four bound team in Warren) will see a great sophomore class turn juniors as all-league guards Kyle Strange and Nick Corcoran lead the way on a versatile roster. The one thing I will caution the fans of these two schools is the same thing I tried to warn Southeastern (Michael Brown) this past year, and that is the mistake of underestimating the loss of a double-double big man. Unioto’s Chase Detillion and Zane Trace’s Wes Beam will both be holes to fill in the middle. I think this will provide Coach Hoops and Coach Alley some interesting off-season decisions, because both teams have the option of going smaller and playing with a more athletic five; however, as I watched many shorter teams find out in the postseason, it is tough when you cannot go down low when you need to get easy looks.

I also think you have to throw Southeastern in this discussion. I realize this team was not always consistent this season, but this is a talented team returning Austin Hice, Jordan Allen, Tyler Cartee, Kannon Strausbaugh, and Jake Skeens around a great point guard in Dylan Miles. I think two things that come with getting older are consistency and ability to win on the road. Southeastern’s rotation will be as talented as Zane Trace and Unioto, so if the consistency improves, the Panthers will be in the mix down the stretch.

Rounding out the league, I still like what Piketon has coming back. Piketon probably will not have the ability to win the league over the 14-game SVC grind, but I do think the Redstreaks will play a big factor in deciding who does win the league.

Beyond those teams it is interesting to look at the depth of next year’s league. Huntington will be with a new coach. The Huntsmen saw some tough times the second half of the year, but it did give them a look at next year’s team with the inside-out combo of Jake Kellough and Elijah Shanks.

Paint Valley also has a nice inside-out combo back with Clay Stratton and Mason McCloy. The Bearcats finished in fourth place two seasons ago winning 10 overall games before winning five games last year. This year, despite the eighth-place finish the Bearcats did win eight overall games including a first-round tournament game. A big key for Paint Valley in the upcoming season will be staying healthy as depth could be a question mark. Keep in mind; PV graduates four guys from this year’s normal seven or eight man rotation.

Adena also finished strong this season with a nice nucleus piece in Jonathan Thomas back, and Westfall is the one team that was hit extremely hard by graduation. Both of these teams have some nice talent coming in from junior high, but it is probably fair to say both of these teams are a year or two away from challenging for a middle to top-half spot in the SVC.

Moving over to girls, Unioto will be the “safe” pick assuming Tori Cox makes a healthy return to join Alexis Overly. I also think Westfall will continue to become more of a factor with the big three of Jess Miller, Kelsie Robinson, and Regan Stonerock returning for Coach Blue.

I feel like the team not getting nearly enough attention entering next year is Zane Trace. This is a team capable of winning the whole thing next year. Hayley Carle and Kylan Strausbaugh both return with a lot of good athletes around them. Coach Dunkle also has some great potential in terms of defense and rebounding in his incoming sophomore class that could really help ZT play its normal physical style. My biggest question with this group will be its commitment to basketball in the off season.

Beyond this trio of teams, Piketon will definitely look to stick its nose in the race. K.K. Jenkins and Aleah Pelphrey return as seniors with emerging star Ashlee Lawhorn coming off a great sophomore season. Coach Coreno will have a point guard a year older as well as some other young kids who started to produce at the varsity level by season’s end.

Paint Valley will have a senior laden team led by all-league returnee Laci Stanforth. Coach Holbert will not have one player just jump into the role of Charlene Stout, but the Lady Cats should have a little more depth throughout the varsity roster. Southeastern, a program about a year away in my opinion from being really good for years to come, will be much improved next season. I also look for Huntington to make another jump in the upcoming season. Huntington went from one win in 2012 to five in 2013. That same type of jump with the talent of Ariel Sams leading the way is a good possibility. Last, the real unknown in the standings will be what Adena looks like after losing its top six players.

As always, the summer is sure to bring some wrinkles in these predictions, but after a great year of basketball, I think the parity returning for both boys and girls should make for a great 2013-2014.

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