No longer the underdog, East Noble is entering the season as the favorite in the Northeast 8 Conference, looking to repeat as champions.

“In the conference, there is probably a target with us going 7-0 last year and winning some close games. I think that is going to be a different spot for these guys,” East Noble coach Ryan Eakins said.

While the NE8 is clearly in front of them, East Noble’s high profile is expected to carry through all season and makes them currently one of the hot names in Class 4A in the northern part of the state. And while he sees that NE8 target in front of him, Eakins isn’t jumping to any postseason conclusions just yet.

“Until we really prove we can get to a Saturday night and have a chance to win it, I think being favored in our Sectional is still a goal we need to put out in front of us,” Eakins said, noting that last year marked the first sectional game win since 2008. East Noble last won a Sectional title in 2001.

Following a breakout junior season, Ali Ali is the key senior back for the group. The Akron commit put on around 15 pounds since last season in the weight room and if the summer is any indication, he will play much more aggressive during his senior season. Ali himself admits he was passive at times a year ago, which is good news for Knights fans. If a passive stand out scores 16.3 points per game with 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest, what will a non-passive Ali do? Ali was also an Indiana Junior All-Star last season.

Hayden Jones will return for his junior season after success on the gridiron this fall. One of the area’s few true point guards, Jones averaged 14.7 points and six assists a season ago. Jones will be strong finishing around the rim and can get to the free throw line well as he attacks the basket.

“You are talking about a guy who has already had two seasons of varsity experience. He has many qualities a coach would love, but I love how fearless he is,” Eakins said. “He plays the game, he’s aggressive at all times and he makes plays other people don’t make because of his ability level and he has the confidence in himself and he is not afraid to take risks.”

Senior Brent Cox (8.9 points, 7.7 rebounds per game) returns in the post after being a guy who came off the bench most of the time last season as a heavy minute seeing sixth man. Eakins’ praises Cox’s athleticism and ability to play with his back to the basket. Cox’s versatility will allow the taller Ali to spend more time creating and less in the post.

All-NE8 second team member senior Michael Bender (6.1 points, 6.2 rebounds per game) and junior Michael Klein (2.7 points) also return as very intelligent glue guys for the Knights.

“I think one of our strengths is our basketball I.Q.,” Eakins noted while talking about Bender and Klein.

Juniors Nate Dickson, a true shooter, and Gage Ernsberger will also be expected to contribute.

“Each night throughout the season, teams are going to know we have a lot back, we have talent, we have ability and the chance to win. We are going to have to approach things a little bit differently,” Eakins said. “Our guys are going to have to withstand more scrutiny and challenges. Last year we were able to sneak up on some people some games, we were really hungry some games.”

Are they going to have the same type of hunger?

East Noble’s schedule is loaded with tough teams, perhaps the toughest stretch from November 27 through December 8 where they face Snider, Carroll, Northridge and Huntington North. January 3’s home game against Westview could be must see as the two teams squared off both as unbeaten a year ago with Westview getting the one point win.

“Throughout the season last year, I felt like our chemistry got stronger and we knew each others strengths,” Ali said. “We bring back a lot of chemistry and team unity and I feel like that is just an edge we have over a lot of other teams to start the season.”

WHY #4?

The Knights lost just three games, closing out an unbeaten NE8 record. Of those three losses, two were by just one point. East Noble knows how to win; they knew how to win last season and are now more seasoned.

WHY NOT HIGHER?:

The development since last season around Ali and Jones will be something teams are on the lookout for. The Knights can say they arguably have two of the top 10 players in all of Northeast Indiana, but will the guys around them shine. In both of their one point losses a year ago, Westview and Carroll just had a weapon or two more. East Noble needs to show they have more than two every game weapons.

CRITICAL GAME

November 27 versus Snider

You may notice a trend in our Outside the Huddle countdowns of top teams: there are big early games that will matter. Week two of the season will bring one of the biggest matchups when the Panthers visit Kendallville. These two potential Sectional opponents would both like to draw first blood.

Both teams return a solid amount of players, but the Knights do return more at the top end and will be playing in their third game of the season this night. It will be Snider’s season opener.

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