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Knights, Cougs must rebuild

A year after sharing the Skyline Conference title, the North Valley and Illinois Valley boys basketball teams find themselves doing some serious rebuilding.

And both have new carpenters.

At Illinois Valley, where last year's team finished third in the state, Dan Kroplin replaces Martin Connelly and inherits exactly one player.

With only starting point guard Orly Despacio back, Kroplin faces the daunting task of retooling a program on the heels of last year's unprecedented success.

It's probably harder because expectations in the community are real high right now, says Kroplin, who won a state title in 1985 as the starting point guard at North Valley.

At Kroplin's alma mater, longtime junior varsity coach Dave Forbuss faces a similarly difficult task. Without a single returning starter, he begins the quest to continue the winning ways the Knights enjoyed under Harold Dabbs.

Bigfoot would have left smaller shoes to fill. Dabbs stepped aside after an 18-season run that included 16 trips to the state playoffs, one state title and 317 victories against 125 losses.

It's a big challenge, says Forbuss, whose team is off to a 1-6 start heading into Friday's conference opener at South Umpqua. There's a lot of pressure. Whether that's self-induced or a reality I don't know. There's pressure on (the players) and on me.

Only five of North Valley's players are seniors and all the Knights are well aware of the school's strong tradition.

They've got a big load on their shoulders, Forbuss says. We're just working things out and trying to figure out where we are.

Directing traffic for North Valley from the point-guard spot will be 6-foot-1 senior Clyne Wardlaw.

Quickness and good ball handling skills are two leading attributes of a North Valley team that expects big contributions from senior guard Brad Kudlac (5-10), junior wing Daniel Bruton (6-1) and senior wing Clayton Reinhart (6-1).

In the paint, 6-6 junior Matt Byers and 6-3 senior Scott Stickler will be expected to carry the load.

At Illinois Valley, Despacio -- a 6-0 junior -- leads a quick, athletic team that is learning a more disciplined style under Kroplin. It's style he picked from Dabbs first as a North Valley player then as a freshman coach for two seasons.

When you learn under Harold, that's the way you learn and the way you teach, says Kroplin, whose team is 1-7 heading into Friday's conference opener at home against Rogue River.

In that sense, the large crop of new players present a clean slate for Kroplin.

I was going to start new anyway, he says. It's a complete change in the way we've done things.

Kroplin is determined to slow the ball down, to work it around and get good shots rather than a run-and-gun approach.

We have a big problem with turnovers and forced shots, he says. Discipline is a big thing.

Kroplin's also got the Cougars playing man-to-man defense -- a change from the zones Connelly favored.

Junior Justin Pope (5-10) is expected to start at guard. A foursome of forwards -- senior Rael Hirning (6-2), senior Robert Dobie (6-2), senior Seth Haynes (6-2) and junior Ben Moses (6-0) -- are vying for the other three starting spots.

Dobie, who returns after not playing for two seasons, is off to a good start, earning all-tournament honors last weekend at Gold Beach.

While the Skyline coaches see Henley as the clear favorite to take this year's title, no one is ready to count North Valley, upstart Hidden Valley or a handful of other teams out.

It's going to be interesting, Forbuss says. The league is pretty much a wide-open race, so we've got as good a chance as anyone.

PHOENIX -- As usual, lack of size is the leading concern for fifth-year Pirates coach Randy Shipley.

Gabe Willard, a 6-foot-3 junior who is a returning starter at forward, is Phoenix's tallest player.

A team that was already vertically impaired got a little shorter with the loss of Duncan Leao, a 6-foot-1 returning post player who will miss the season after suffering a shoulder injury in a mountain biking accident. Leao was a third-team all-league pick a year ago and was expected to be the Pirates' top defender.

The only other returning starter for the Pirates, who are 4-7 heading into Friday's opener at home against Lakeview, is 6-2 senior forward Eric Esselstrom.

Shipley says Phoenix will have to make the most of its lack of height, meaning his team hopes to be quicker than opponents.

We are short, very short, says Shipley. We're going to make their big people guard our small people. It may create matchup problems at the defensive end for us, but we hope to create matchup problems, too.

Phoenix, which finished tied for last in the Skyline last year at 3-11, will use a three-guard offense with Willard and Esselstrom as the forwards.

Tanner Brink, a 6-0 senior, will lead the pack of guards. The other probable starters are junior Doug Crofts (5-11) and sophomore Andy Bartels (6-0).

HIDDEN VALLEY -- With three returning starters, a big man who missed last season back and a talented transfer, the Mustangs could be the surprise of the conference. They are 3-4 heading into their league opener at Henley.

We've got real good size, real good speed and we're very athletic, says third-year coach Robbie Tate, adding that all five starters can dunk. Our confidence level is way up.

The three senior returning starters are forward Jamie Callaway (6-3), guard Garrett Ryan (6-3) and Aaron Jiron (6-1). Jared Young, a 6-5 senior center, didn't play a year ago but returns as the team's best rebounder.

Willie Isley, a 6-1 sophomore who transferred in from Newport, has been impressive and will handle the point guard duties.

Tate also has a trio of strong reserves in junior Andy Sakraida (6-2), senior Irving Anderson (6-3) and junior Danny Reid (6-3).

Hidden Valley has yet to make the playoffs under Tate, something he feels may change this season.

HENLEY -- To most coaches in the Skyline, the Hornets are hands down the team to beat.

Henley coach Jess Schefstrom will concede that he has two of the league's top post players in 6-9 junior Tim Frost and 6-5 junior Matt Johnson. But he isn't so sure the Hornets will be as dominant as some coaches think.

A post can't take over a game unless you can get the ball to him, says Schefstrom, whose team is 4-3 and hosts Hidden Valley in its opener. We are learning how to do that. We probably have the best post tandem but we have some of the greenest kids around.''

Inexperience in the backcourt is a major concern for Schefstrom, who enters his 13th season. Aside from Frost -- who scored a team-high 13 points a game last year -- and Johnson, the projected starters are junior Ryan Juhl (5-9), junior Rick Warnick (5-9) and senior Jon Tennison (5-10) -- none of whom saw significant time last year.

You take away Frost and Johnson and this is just a good JV team, says Schefstrom. Somehow we hope to mold them into a cohesive unit before things fall apart.

ROGUE RIVER -- There's little question who the chief threat for the Chieftains is this season.

Junior Ron Wessels, a 6-6 center, enters his third year as a starter after a sophomore season in which he pumped in 13.5 points a game for Rogue River en route to third-team all-league honors.

He's kind of the franchise, says longtime coach Jim Irwin, whose team is 3-4 and opens at Illinois Valley. He's beefed up and lifted a lot of weights.

A pair of 5-8 guards -- senior Dan Shelby and junior Kevin McMillian -- are expected to start in the backcourt, while senior Ryan Tuulik (6-2) and junior Ryan Paxson (6-1) are the probable starters at wing.

Long-range threat Beau Gibson, a 6-0 guard, leads a solid group of reserves. A wild card in the mix is 6-5 senior Chris Berg, who placed third in the state among high jumpers last spring.

SOUTH UMPQUA -- The Lancers have four returning starters from last year's 3-11 squad for their last hoorah in the Skyline before South Umpqua shifts to the Far West League next season.

Travis Price, a 6-0 senior guard, is a deadly 3-point shooter who hit 62 long balls last year, including nine against Illinois Valley.

Senior center Dane Williams (6-3), senior point guard Nick Mosley (6-3) and junior guard Ronnie Slater (6-1) all return for second-year coach Aaron Schermerhorn.

The leading candidates for the fifth starting spot are junior center Micah Mills (6-3) and junior forward Lee McCurry (6-2).

Another player to keep on eye on is freshman Matt Snyder, a 6-9 freshman who Schermerhorn expects to blossom into a talented player.

LAKEVIEW -- Picked to finish last in the league, the Honkers have just one starter back from last year's 6-8 squad. Lakeview went 3-3 in non-conference action this year.

Senior forward Cody Kaiser (6-1) is the lone returner for second-year coach Steve Hall, who says Lakeview will be a guard-oriented team that runs a ball-control motion offense.

Along with Kaiser, senior guard Andy Albertson (6-0) and junior guard Nick Hadley (6-1) are the Honkers' top shooters. A pair of seniors, center Trent Wilkie (6-4) and forward Brad Bogardus (6-3) round out the starting five.