Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2012, 7:27 pm

Rockets, Titans expected to clash for WCC North hoops supremacy

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By Terry Duckett,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Rockridge junior forward and Wisconsin commit Ethan Happ helped the Rockets reached the 20-win mark a year ago for the first time since 1974. Happ averaged 14.5 points and 10 rebounds per game.
After a stretch of lean seasons, the Rockridge boys' basketball team once again became a force to reckon with last winter.

However, the success of the Rockets' 21-7, West Central North runner-up finish in Toby Whiteman's first season as head coach ended up being trumped by a pair of late-season losses to division rival Monmouth-Roseville that kept Rockridge from bigger and better things.

After falling to the Titans (26-5, 8-2 WCC North) on their home floor in the regular-season finale to finish one game behind them in the conference race, Rockridge advanced to the Class 2A Orion Regional finals, only to get stopped again by Monmouth-Roseville.

"Our kids came out this past summer and showed that they're really into it and they care about this. They want to keep pushing the envelope and get better and better, which is a coach's dream to see," said Whiteman, who guided the Rockets to their first 20-win season since 1974.

Rockridge returns a strong returning nucleus that includes two of the area's premier underclassmen in 6-foot-7 junior forward and University of Wisconsin-committed Ethan Happ (14.5 points, 10 rebounds) and sophomore guard Bryan Heath (11 points).

"Ethan has a great work ethic. He loves the ball and works his butt off at it," said Whiteman. "The biggest thing we preach is great attitude and effort, and all of these kids are competing hard. Last year was coming into a situation where we had some great kids and athletes, which made things pretty easy.

However, Monmouth-Roseville once again remains a formidable obstacle to the Rockets' hopes of marking their final year in the WCC North with a conference title as the Titans look to reload after seeing last season end with a double-overtime loss in the 2A sectional finals.

Returning junior starters Martel Hunter at point guard (15.5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals) and Trayvon Smith at forward (12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds) provide a strong nucleus for coach Chuck Grant's club.

"Obviously, we lose a lot of leadership and toughness with Jackson (Kane), Drew (Cole) and Jordan (Shelton); those guys brought it every night," said Grant. "But we expect to be successful every year, and I know we can count on our seniors this year. They've been through the wars, and they know what it's all about."

Also looking to get back to work after slipping below .500 in WCC North play last season is Orion (23-8), a traditional conference power that also hopes to make its presence felt in the 2012-13 division race alongside another traditional contender, Macomb.

The Chargers do have some big shoes to fill as center Tanner Williams has moved on to Loyola-Chicago after capping a stellar prep career by averaging 18 points and seven rebounds last winter.

"We got a lot out of Tanner last year, so that's a big hole to fill," said Orion coach Brent Hutton. "Tanner's a phenomenal athlete, one of those kids you can't replace. We ran a lot of things through him last year, so we've got to scrap some of those things and go back to a time when we didn't have a dominant player like him."

But with eight forwards among the Chargers' 10 returning letterwinners — a group led by 6-6 Tyler Nelson and 6-5 Jason Marshall — Hutton will look to fill those shoes by committee.

"It's going to have to be by committee," he said. "They can be good at it, and with us being light in returning guards, we may even get some of the bigger guys to take on some ball-handling duties."

Meanwhile, Sherrard (8-21) faces a hard road in its bid to return to prominence as the Tigers graduated their entire starting lineup. However, second-year coach Barry Jackson hopes a strong summer showing translates into the colder months for his team.

"A lot of our kids played last year as juniors, but we were a senior-dominated team," said Jackson. "I was happy with how they played this summer. ... We got accustomed to what we want the kids to do this year, and they adjusted themselves to that."

Western Central North boys' basketball preview capsule

Monmouth-Roseville Titans
Chuck Grant (eighth year).
2011-12: 26-5 (8-2 WCC North; lost 75-69 (2 OT) to Minonk Fieldcrest in the Class 2A Princeton Sectional finals.
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Connor Gillen (5-9 G), Liam Merritt (6-1 G), Will Myers (6-4 F/C), Aaron Troyer (6-1 F/C). Jrs.: Martel Hunter (5-11 G), Trayvon Smith (6-6 C/F).
Newcomers: Jrs.: Dillon Frieden (5-11 G), Dalton Hottle (6-1 F), M.J. Kelley (5-11 G), Joe Colclasure (6-1 G). Soph.: Braeden Wollbrink (6-3 F). Fr.: Sam Gillen (5-11 G).

Orion Chargers
Brent Hutton (eighth year).
2011-12: 23-8 (4-6 WCC North); lost 55-49 to Rockridge in the Class 2A Orion Regional semifinals.
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Adam Killion (5-10 G), Dylan Schultz (6-1 G), Jason Marshall (6-5 F), Jake Schulenberg (6-3 F), Tyler Nelson (6-6 F), Dakota Grant (6-3 F), Austin Anderson (6-4 F), Drew Amador (6-1 F), Caleb Dehamer (6-0 F), Trent Zwicker (6-2 F).
Newcomers: Sr.: Kayman Martens (5-11 G). Jrs.: Cody Hutcherson (6-0 F), Logan Martens (6-0 F), Clay VanderHeiden (6-2 F).

Rockridge Rockets
Toby Whiteman (second year).
2011-12: 21-7 (7-3 WCC North); lost 52-46 to Monmouth-Roseville in the Class 2A Orion Regional finals.
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Matt Klundt (6-2 F), Dakota Horton (5-10 G), T.J. Henry (6-2 G), Nyle Stevens (6-2 F), Logan Green (6-4 C). Jr.: Ethan Happ (6-7 F). Soph.: Bryan Heath (6-3 G).
Newcomers: Jrs.: Nick Madison (6-0 F), Zach Krueger (6-2 F), Alex Martin (5-9 G), Jon Easterla (6-0 C), Darren Southwell (6-3 F), Dalton McManus (6-0 G).

Sherrard Tigers
Barry Jackson (second year).
2011-12: 8-21 (0-10 WCC North); lost 76-56 to Biggsville West Central in the first round of the Class 2A Orion Regional.
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Devin Davis (6-3 C), Brennen Bollinger (6-0 G), Dylan Larson (6-2 F). Jrs.: Dwight Swartz (6-0 G), Jake Kissner (6-0 G), Clayton Bjustrom (6-3 G/F).
Newcomers: Srs.: Jake Coyne (5-11 G), Nathan Fay (6-1 F), Austin Kelly (6-2 F). Jrs.: Lucas Boraas (6-4 F), Mitchell Smith (5-10 G, transfer from Moline), Shay Mora (6-1 F).