Every basketball team in the state of Indiana is praying that there is no major disruption to the season this winter, but Leo may be at the top of that list.
A sectional title and 19 victories made for plenty of celebration a season ago, but with the conclusion of the playoffs called off, coupled with a wealth of experience back, the Lions may be in a position to eclipse last season’s win total and compete for its first NE8 crown since 2016.
It starts up front, where Coach Cary Cogdell can deploy a pair of 6-foot-5 physical forwards in Zack Troyer and DJ Allen. Both are capable of notching double-doubles on any given night, and are problems on the defensive end, with Allen capable to stepping out and guarding on the perimeter and Troyer as good of a shot blocker as anyone in the area.
“Both Zack and DJ are fairly versatile,” Cogdell said. “While the game has changed and the post-up isn’t high valued in the analytics world, they sure make a difference at the rim.”
Allen averaged 11.3 points and seven rebounds a game a year ago. Meanwhile, Troyer finished with 10.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a contest while grabbing 29 more offensive rebounds than anyone else on the Leo roster.
“When you throw Landen Livingston in there, he is a big boy as well,” Cogdell said. “We do have size and that benefits you.”
But that interior size and length will not be alone. Blake Davison returns for seemingly his seventh year of varsity basketball with Leo – though it is actually just four. While not a vocal leader by nature, he stepped up in that role down the stretch last season. Davison, as their returning leading scorer, is not just a shooter and has shown he can get into the leg and even throw down a dunk or two.
The Lions lost Andrew Tkacz and Chase Bates to graduation, both of whom brought leadership and helped team chemistry. It is not just Davison, but the entire senior class that also includes Troyer, Eric Steger, Carson Hart and Cameron Groves that Cogdell is counting on to lead by example.
“The longer I do this, the more I understand that team chemistry and culture is how you tap into your potential,” Cogdell said. “We don’t recruit, so talent is going to vary, but you really definitely feel like you can compete if you have that potential and culture.”
A sizable junior class with the likes of Allen, Ayden Ruble, Xavier Middleton and others further deepens Cogdell’s options with the remainder of the starting lineup and the bench.
Steger is not expected back until mid-season as he recovers from injury, so he leaves a shot-making void in the backcourt opposite Davison. The senior Hart is a very good on-ball defender and will see his usage increase, while Ruble’s minutes will also see an uptick.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that Leo will have this season is its core group back. With disruption expected to play havoc with the schedule, a team that knows each other and knows the system will be able to succeed while other programs in rebuilding or reloading mode struggle.
There is no doubt that Leo was playing its best basketball in February and March last season, and had as good of a shot as any entering that Class 3A regional. A convoluted summer has given way to an uncertain regular season, one that Cogdell feel his team is capable of navigating.
“With Covid, guys can come and go based on who is available, it will test your depth more than any other year,” Cogdell said. “I’ve never been more comfortable with a group of guys than what we have, and I feel we can be competitive no matter who we have out there.
A blend of inside-out offense and a long, skilled defense makes Leo one of the most complete teams in the area, especially with the wealth of experience on the roster.
Coach Cogdell believes he has the personnel and talent to be a threat in the Northeast 8 and the playoffs. With a team that was playing its best hoops late last year and brings back a multitude of contributors back, that is entirely possible.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Leo suffered losses to Norwell, New Haven and East Noble in a 14-day stretch last January. While the Lions were a better team barely a month later, the timing saw Leo out of the league race before it really heated up.
However, all three of those aforementioned teams lost more than Leo did to graduation. With a strong start, the Lions could be the class of the NE8.
JAN. 9 to JAN. 23 – Norwell, New Haven, East Noble
We are flipping the script a little on this one. We mentioned the three league losses in a two-week span last year. Well, the schedule lays out the same, with defending league champion Norwell following by the Bulldogs and the Knights.
If Leo is set on planting itself firmly atop the NE8 standings, it must bounce back from last year’s setbacks against these teams and earn victories over some of their top league contenders.
BLAKE DAVISON, SENIOR
Not only is Davison a floor leader for the Lions, he is also one of its top scorers. Last year in sectional play, Davison truly put on a show on both ends of the floor, in particular truly coming out of his shell in the victory over Bishop Luers that opened a lot of eyes.
This team has the talent, but will it be able to hold together when times get tough? Will it be able to shut out the whispers outside of the program about how good this team can be? That is on Davison and being able to keep his teammates focused on the goals that Cogdell has set forth.