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Effingham Hearts basketball preview

The road to the Apollo Conference championship runs through Effingham.

And it has for four straight years.

But for the Hearts to claim a fifth straight conference banner, veteran coach Ron Reed knows there are holes to fill.

A year ago, Effingham went 9-1 in the Apollo and finished 20-9 overall.

But gone from that squad are seven seniors, including starters Reed Schafer, Sean Zerrusen and Jared Minor, plus Michael Woltman and Brady Jackson, who both saw ample playing time.

“We have two starters returning, but then I have to remind myself that we are very young and inexperienced,” Reed said. “When we step on the floor for our first game, there are only two guys that saw a lot of game time. A couple saw limited time and that’s it.”

But the two returning starters returning are very good.

Point guard Grant Wolfe is arguably the best player in the Apollo Conference and Jacob Donaldson, despite being 6’6”, is as athletic as anyone in the league.

Heading into the season opener, Coach Reed’s main concerns are depth, defense and rebounding.

“We have a good nucleus, but we need to develop our depth,” Reed said. “And that starts in practice. We need to be able to compete and push each other. That will raise our level of play.”

Defense has always been a focus for Reed, who is entering his 30th year in coaching and 15th as head coach at EHS. When teams face Effingham, they know they’re going to see hard-nosed man-to-man defense. This year will be no exception.

Those graduation losses actually may be more of a factor at the defensive end of the court.

“The seniors we lost were really good defensive players,” Reed noted. “Sean almost always matched up against the other team’s best player; Reed took 18 charging calls; and Jared was a good defender in the post. That’s why defense is one of my big concerns.”

That’s also why the Hearts have spent a lot of time working on that in practice.

“Defense is something you have to take a lot of pride in,” Reed emphasized. “At some point during games, you have to get stops and get rebounds. It’s just a fact. I’m looking for kids that will step into these roles and be willing to guard. It takes a while to learn how to play team defense, but I’m seeing some positive signs.”

Rebounding is an emphasis for every team. The Hearts have a couple tall players, but most are in the 5’10” to 6-foot range.

“It’s a matter of boxing out and rebounding,” Reed said. “It’s hard to push the ball up the floor if the other team scores and you’re always taking the ball out underneath your own basket.”

Reed does like his team’s balanced scoring attack, versatility and ability to run the floor.

“I’m excited about our balance on offense,” the coach admitted. “We should have a post presence and can surround them with good outside shooters. We could make it hard for other teams to concentrate on just one or two players. Having this kind of balance is nice.

“And we can be versatile on offense, too,” Reed added. “Our post players can step out and hit a three and our guards are pretty good at posting up or getting to the rim. We could be difficult to guard.”

With the ability to run the open floor, the Hearts might play at a more up-tempo pace.

“Time will tell,” Reed said. “It depends on how quickly our younger players and our bench develop. Some of our kids really contributed during the summer. But summer and the real season are a little different. We certainly have the potential to run the floor well and finish.”

Reed has four of the five starting positions in place.

It starts with Grant Wolfe, who will be running the point position for the fourth year. He has already eclipsed 1,000 points in his career, was a first team all-conference and fourth team all-state selection a year ago, while averaging nearly 20 points per game.

“Grant has been really good about assuming more of a leadership role,” Reed said. “He’s a tremendous ball handler that’s great in the open floor, getting to the basket or shooting a mid-range shot. He’s a good passer and great competitor. He’s just a tremendous point guard.”

Donaldson averaged approximately 14 points a game and was also a first team all-conference pick.

“He’s very athletic,” Reed said. “He can post and finish around the basket and also shoots the three very well. He can run the floor well and led our team in blocks last year.”

Senior Brent Beals will start at guard. He didn’t play as much as anticipated last year due to an arm injury sustained in the opening week. He missed about six weeks and didn’t return to action until January.

“He’s got good size for a guard at 6’1” and he’s got long arms,” Reed said. “He shoots the ball extremely well and is also a good rebounder. He provides good versatility for us. He could even play some post if needed.”

Sophomore Landon Wolfe, a 6’4” sophomore, will play inside for the Hearts. He’s put on 20 pounds since last year and is up to 195.

“He’s a good rebounder and has worked hard to get better at the defensive end,” Reed notes. “Landon can score around the basket, shoot the three and he handles the ball pretty well.”

Five other players are battling for the fifth starting position and figure to see plenty of action this year – seniors Trevor Kreke and Ryan Huelsbusch; and juniors Mason Hull, Blake Lohman and Ryan Sandifer.

Kreke is the quickest player on the team and returns after missing last season.

“He’s a great ball handler and a very good shooter,” Reed said. “He’s also good at applying on-ball pressure on defense.”

Huelsbusch figures to play multiple positions.

“He’s more of a small forward,” Reed said. “He’s a good defender, good rebounder and takes care of the ball very well. He’s also improved on being able to knock down the 10- to 12-foot jump shot. He will definitely play a key role for us this year.”

Hull brings some varsity experience from last year.

“Mason is a solid player,” Reed noted. “He’s quick. He could be our guy to guard the other team’s best player. He’s a good defender and rebounder, plus he knocks down open shots.”

Lohman, at 6’2”, will be counted on to provide inside scoring and rebounding.

“He plays extremely hard,” Reed said. “He does a good job rebounding and gets to a lot of loose balls. He’s a very unselfish player. He will play a key role in our season.”

Sandifer is a quick, 5’11” guard.

“He can get to the rim, shoots the ball pretty well and is a good defender,” the coach pointed out. “He’s another of those players we’re counting on to help us this year.”

After opening the season in the St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament, the Hearts will open Apollo Conference play Friday, Dec. 2 at Charleston. The Hearts will play three league games before Christmas.

Effingham has dominated conference play the last four years, compiling an impressive 36-4 record. But Reed said this year could be a tough one.

“There are a lot of familiar faces coming back in our league,” he noted. “Most teams have several returning starters.

“It should be a balanced conference,” Reed added. “It will be tough to win on the road. We’ll cherish every road win. And then we’ll need to play like crazy to take care of business at home.

“I’m real proud of what the kids have done the last four years. Hopefully, we’ll get our season off to a good start. I always look forward to a new group and always want to give them every chance to be as successful as the teams before them.”

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