VERSAILLES – This season is going to look somewhat different than the last few for the Versailles boys basketball team.
The Tigers, who were 21-5 a year ago and finished as district runners-up, graduated a number of seniors that included their top three leading scorers. This year’s squad has just two returners – Evan Hiestand and Michael Stammen – and Hiestand will be the only senior this year.
“Last year we had a nice year overall,” said VHS coach Travis Swank, who enters his third season at the helm. “We replace a lot of guys from last year including our top three leading scorers who graduated, so we have to find some new guys to step up on the offensive end.
“It is going to be hard to replace the scoring we lost when you have a kid like Justin (Ahrens) who could get his baskets any way he wants to at this level,” he continued. “That’s a nice option to have, but we don’t have quite that luxury this year. We are going to have to manufacture some points.”
That will likely be a struggle at least to begin with as the younger players gain some varsity experience.
“A lot of these guys played at the JV level last year and they had a real successful season, but this is going to be a new challenge for them,” Swank said. “The speed of the game is going to be a lot quicker and the physicality is going to be a lot different than what they have experienced before, but I really like our team. I think we are going to grow and develop as the year goes on. We might take some lumps, but I like how our chances are at the end of the year as far as progressing and getting better each and every game.
“We are really going to lean on Evan and Michael to pick up the offensive slack for us,” he continued. “The last couple of years we have been blessed with a lot of athleticism and sometimes you can get by on your athleticism, but what I have seen in this team is they are executing pretty well in practice, they are screening hard and cutting hard and getting open that way instead of just relying on their pure athleticism. That is always something you like seeing as a coach because it means they are listening to what is going on in practice and trying to do the right things at all times.”
In addition to Hiestand, a 6-foot-2 post player, and Stammen (5-10), other players looking to contribute for Versailles this year are juniors Ryan Martin (6-2), Cody Naftzger (6-1), Nate Johnson (5-11) and Austin Toner (6-6).
“Martin brings some size and athleticism for us and Cody is another point guard who can play all the guard spots really,” Swank said. “Nate will also play guard. He is quick and agile and finishes well at the hole. Austin is our big kid. At 6-6 he brings the size we are lacking.
“I really like the direction we are headed, but it is going to be easier said than done,” he continued. “Once you get into the game it starts to become real, so how is that execution from practice going to carry over to the games is what I need to see. My expectation this year is just to see growth and development from our team. How much can we improve from one game to the next and one practice to the next is what I am looking forward to. We kind of have a blank slate because we have so much inexperience on our team and how quickly these guys that do not have experience adjust to the varsity level is going to be key to our teams success this year.”
Also on the varsity roster are juniors Hunter Trump (5-10), Connor VanSkyock (6-0), Dakoda Naftzger (6-1), and sophomores Troy Jones (5-6), Jared DeMange (6-0) and Wesley Bruns (5-9).
The MAC will present its usual difficult challenge and the Tigers have a rough non-league scheduled as well with games against Vandalia Butler, Chaminade Julienne, Bellefontaine, Tippecanoe and Greenville.
“Our conference schedule is a tough road,” Swank said. “I would say there could be six teams fighting for the top four places. It’s going to be anybody’s game. I think we will battle in the conference too, but you have Coldwater that brings a lot back from last year, Fort Recovery brings a lot back as well. Marion Local is the Division IV state champion from last year and they bring quite a bit of size and athleticism back as well. Then you have Minster that brings back a lot and you can never count out St. Henry or Delphos St. John’s and New Bremen has a lot of young, athletic kids too, so I’m sure they are looking forward to their season as well. Our conference is just loaded with good, talented teams and a lot of them are well coached as well so we are going to have battles every singles night.
Our non-conference scheduled isn’t easy either,” he continued. “We have a lot of bigger schools on our schedule and a lot of D-III and D-IV schools that have had a lot of success and have been traditionally successful in the tournament, so our schedule is not the easiest but I wouldn’t change it at all. That kind of schedule will get us ready for the tournament which is what it is all about.”
The question really is how quickly can the Tigers get comfortable enough playing at this level so the inexperience is no longer a factor?
“At the end of the season I could see us being a team that nobody really wants to play once we get that experience and everything so I am looking forward to that,” Swank said. “It is going to be on-the-job training as the season goes on definitely, and there are going to be bumps and bruises along the way I’m sure, but all these guys really love basketball. They want to get better and that makes my job a lot easier to do.
“You don’t want to think about the tournament right now,” he continued. “At this point all you want to do is get better and that is why you put those tough teams on your schedule. The MAC is automatically going to make a little bit tougher and if you load up the non-conference too it just gets you ready because you have kind of experienced tournament games throughout the whole season. Once the lights get a little bit brighter come tournament time you’ve kind of been through all those tournament atmosphere type of games already so you are just a little bit more prepared I feel like when you go into tournament time. I think this group has a lot of confidence in themselves and I think they are going to get better. I think they are going to see the end goal is we need to improve and if we keep on improving then we have a chance to make a little bit of noise once we get to the tournament.”
The Daily Advocate sports editor Skip Weaver can be reached at (937) 569-4316 or by email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @skipweaver65.