By Ben Stroup
The Delaware Hayes boys basketball team has cemented itself as one of the area’s best over the course of the last several seasons.
Winning 16-plus games each of the last three years, including a stellar 41-9 record over the course of the last two, will certainly put a team on the map.
Stretching the success into the foreseeable future will be a new challenge, though, as the Pacers have some serious shoes to fill.
“A lot of people will have high expectations for us … and that’s a good sign because it’s a reflection of past success,” Hayes coach Jordan Blackburn said. “But, we have a long way to go and lots of improvement needed if we are going to be playing meaningful games in February and March.
“That being said, I love the way this group works and the way they pass the ball. If we can stay focused on getting better each day, we have the capacity to surprise … but we have a long way to go.”
The Pacers are young, with three freshmen in their top eight, but have a core of players with varsity experience to lean on.
Key returners include small forward Zach McIntire (averaged 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 49-percent from the field and 84-percent from the stripe last year), point guard Jake Bourget (averaged five points and four assists per game while shooting 43.2-percent from deep) and shooting guard Will Yoakum (averaged 11.1 points and 2.1 steals per game).
“Zach is a playmaker,” Blackburn said. “He can score in a variety of ways, but understands his main job is making other people better.
“Jake is a selfless leader who would do anything for his teammates, and anything to win. His No. 1 goal is the team … and that’s special.
“And Will is one of the top-rated juniors in Central Ohio. He can really score the ball. His understanding of the game has improved quite a bit and he is ready for a breakout year. Will loves the game as much as anyone.”
Power forward Derrick Buford is also back. He’ll be relied upon to bring toughness, get rebounds, play defense and be a good teammate, Blackburn said.
Key newcomers include freshmen Terin Kinsway, a strong forward, and wing Sam Lagando.
“Terin will be a key component for us on offense and defense and will be relied upon to score and rebound,” Blackburn said. “Sam will be a key role player who can knock down open shots and do the little things that help teams win.”
Also expected to join the rotation are sophomore guard Cole Barton, junior forward Max Hendrix and freshman forward Colin Sistrunk.
A slew of the same components that have gone into the program’s winning formula are prevalent this time around. Experience, though, isn’t one of them.
“We lost Noble Moore and Khalil Iverson, who both started 88-plus games as four-year starters,” Blackburn said. “Khalil is the school’s all-time best player and Noble left as the school’s best shooter. We also lost Jordan Hecker, who was a good on-ball defender and good athlete. Hecker is playing at Wilmington and Iverson is at Wisconsin. Moore went to Wittenberg to play basketball and baseball, but has decided since to focus on baseball.
“This is the youngest team we’ve ever had, both based on experience and in age. Our learning curve is steep right now, but we are improving.”
With three starting guards back from last year’s championship-winning bunch, Buckeye Valley has a lot to be excited about this season.
Jesse Tomlinson (9.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game last season), Nick Hyatt (8.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game) and Mitch Rotondo (6.0 points, 3.3 rebounds per game), all seniors, are returning to run the show.
“Jesse will be our primary scorer and playmaker,” Buckeye Valley coach Andy Gast said. “Nick is a well-rounded player who is the most improved and Mitch is our best overall defender.”
Other potential standouts include senior guard Grant Kelly and sophomore guard Elijah Jackson. Kelly has varsity experience and Jackson brings plenty of quickness to the table.
The Barons, who finished 15-8 overall and 11-3 on the way to winning the MOAC-Red Division championship last winter, did it with a balanced lineup. Experienced big men by the likes of Austin Kelleher and Dalton Sims handled things in the paint. With the duo lost to graduation, a key to success will be filling their shoes.
“We lack overall team size and are inexperienced in our front-court positions,” Gast said. “But we are experienced at the guard position, solid defensively and have good overall team depth.”
Hayes and Buckeye Valley open the season against each other tonight. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m.
Follow Ben Stroup on Twitter @delgazette_ben.