STARTING FIVE

With the high school boys basketball season officially starting this week, it’s time to get back to the hardwood and highlight some of the key area players to watch and the game county hoops fans can’t miss this season.

The skinny

• Mt. Vernon brings back its entire starting five this season and looks to use its talent, size and a high basketball IQ to make a run at a sectional title.

• Greenfield-Central rolls out a senior-anchored lineup in 2015-16 with hopes of building upon its 10-15 record from a year ago.

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• New Palestine opens the season with a new coach in Trent Whitaker and drops down to Class 3A for the first time since 2010-11.

• Eastern Hancock lost several senior leaders from last year’s squad but believes it can contend with a solid mix of youth and experience. 

The openers

The Marauders opened their season Tuesday at Whiteland, while New Palestine travels to Jennings County tonight. The Cougars trekked to Beech Grove last night and the Royals host Centerville this evening.

Can’t-miss games

Mt. Vernon vs. Hamilton Heights, Saturday

This contest has all the ingredients hoops fans crave around the holidays. Conducted inside the former home of past ABA legends, Mt. Vernon has an opportunity to show exactly why its a preseason favorite to breakthrough in 2015-16. And what better stage than the Colossal Coliseum Challenge at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum? With the series deadlocked at 11-all the last 30 years, the Marauders are seeking to avenge back-to-back losses to the Huskies. In those two previous meetings, Hamilton Heights has won by a combined 16 points. History could change once the ball goes up 5:15 p.m.

Greenfield-Central at Pendleton Heights, Jan. 29

The Cougars haven’t been able to solve the Pendleton Heights problem since the Dan Carmony era. Their last win at home or on the road against their Hoosier Heritage Conference foes was in 2003-04. Since then, this grudge match has been one-sided with Pendleton Heights winning 12 consecutive. The most recent meeting has been the closes in years as Greenfield-Central went to overtime before losing 53-50. The streak can’t last forever, and no one wants to see to unlucky No. 13, especially against a potential Class 4A Sectional 9 opponent.

Knightstown at Eastern Hancock, Dec. 18

Any game between neighboring Knightstown and Eastern Hancock is more than a rivalry. It’s civil war, dividing families and friends — for one night at least. The Royals have lost the past two meetings, but last year’s defeat was by a mere seven points. For added drama, these two programs could possibly draw each other in Class 2A Sectional 42. Bragging rights are on the line and Eastern Hancock seniors might have something to say about it.

New Palestine at Franklin Central, Dec. 19

New Palestine caught fire at the right time last year. Sporting a .500 record heading into the 2014-15 postseason, the Dragons rattled off three straight wins before losing in the sectional title game. The two teams meet again for the first time since Franklin Central spoiled the fun 68-60 last March. The Dragons own a 4-2 series lead since 2011-12 and have never lost two in a row.

Mt. Vernon at Lawrence Central, Feb. 13

The Marauders’ schedule is packed with headliners, and this one narrowly beat out their home games against Class 4A Noblesville, 2A No. 6 Frankton and 4A Hamilton Southeastern. All three bring with them intriguing prospects, but the 4A Bears stand alone with Virginia recruit Kyle Guy. A four-star prospect, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard, is ranked No. 1 in the Midwest region at his position. This game should be an excellent test for the Marauders’ defense.

Players to watch

Mike Ertel, junior guard, Mt. Vernon

Ertel is a flat-out playmaker. When he’s not slicing passes through a leaky zone defense or breaking down the press, the 6-foot-1 point guard is creating off the dribble and keeping a watchful eye out for the open man on the perimeter. As a sophomore he led the Marauders in scoring (15.3 points per game) and was second behind fellow junior Michael Thompson in assists (3.0 per contest). After spending his summer with Indiana Elite 2017, Ertel’s game is picking up speed, much like his reputation for being a tough competitor. 

Erick Shepherd, junior forward, Mt. Vernon

The Marauders are loaded with potential this season and one of main reasons is 6-foot-4 forward Erick Shepherd. The “big man” in Mt. Vernon’s starting five, Shepherd averaged 13.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore. While playing for Indiana Elite 2017 this summer, he’s sparked the interests of Saint Louis, Xavier and UNC-Greensboro and has proven to be versatile threat on both ends of the floor. Shepherd nearly averaged two assists per contest and shot an impressive 51 percent from the field.

Tate Hall, senior guard/forward, Greenfield-Central

With his future set, University of Indianapolis signee Tate Hall is focused on the present and helping the Cougars chase down their first sectional title since 1998. The 6-foot-6 forward has been named a two-time All-Hancock County and All-Hoosier Heritage Conference First-Team selection and an IBCA All-State honorable mention in his career. More accolades undoubtedly await this year after coming off a junior campaign with Hall setting career-highs in points (15.6) and rebounds (5.5) per game.

Addison True, sophomore guard, Eastern Hancock

Cracking the Royals’ starting lineup as a freshman, True, a 5-foot-10 guard, played like anything but. The young up-and-comer on a senior-laden team last season, True made his presence known by pacing Eastern Hancock in scoring (11.6 points per game) and becoming one of the squad’s top assist leaders (1.6). Despite his size, he pulled down 3.1 rebounds on average and posted 1.3 steals a night. An savvy slasher, True shot 45 percent from the field and buried 33 jumpers from beyond the arc.

Duke Blackwell, senior guard, New Palestine

Head coach Trent Whitaker plans to rely on all six of his senior leaders this season, and Duke Blackwell will play a key role as Class 3A New Palestine seeks a potential third sectional in six years. A natural athlete on the gridiron where he’s solidified himself as a record-breaker, Blackwell brings a little bit of everything to the court. As a junior, the 5-foot-10 guard averaged 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game despite missing time due to football. Once again, playing for a football state title, his return to the hardwood will be worth the wait.

Other players to watch: New Palestine — Caleb VanderWal, Duke Blackwell, Jalen Qualkinbush. Mt. Vernon — Miles Wayer, Michael Thompson, James McCloud. Eastern Hancock — Ryan Speas, Tom Barton. Greenfield-Central — Kirill Schoellman, Chandler Bean, Blake Robertson.

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.