Last season was a historic one for the Leo Lions – capped by the program’s first-ever trip to the state championship.
While a one-point loss to Silver Creek in the 3A title game was a disappointment in the short-term, the Lions experiencing such a contest in that atmosphere set a new standard for Leo hoops.
And Coach Cary Cogdell is setting his sights on his team picking up where they left off this season.
Despite the loss of six seniors, including leading scorer Blake Davison and the hard-nose forward Zack Troyer, Cogdell has a nucleus of returnees that, with a key addition, could keep rolling.
Among players back is DJ Allen, the Rutgers signee for football returns for another go on the hardwood. The senior averaged 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds as a junior, and his passing ability is not to be overlooked. He is tough to deal with defensively and brings a level of intensity that raises the entire roster.
“D.J. is a good leader with an excellent motor,” Cogdell said. “His ability to defend well without fouling is his greatest basketball asset, but he also brings rebounding and scoring.
“We will need him to be more vocal in his leadership this year with the loss of the six seniors.”
While not a prolific scorer last season, senior Ayden Ruble is key to have back as he led the Lions in assists last year. He and Davison each saw time at the one-guard spot last year, but it will Ruble alone this year to manage the offense.
“Ayden sees the whole floor well and is a good defender and rebounder,” Cogdell said. “We need him to continue to do an excellent job of getting everybody involved.”
Also back is senior Xavier Middleton, who was so good with energy last year and hit some HUGE shots throughout the season, including the playoffs. His grit and intensity is unmatched by many opposing players and he is not afraid of big moments.
“Xavier hit a lot of big shots for us last year and is a competitor who is an excellent defender,” Cogdell said. “The physicality and quiet intensity he brings helps raise our team’s effort level.”
The wild card is senior forward Caedmon Bontrager. After seeing time at Lakewood Park Christian and the prep school Elevation Prep, Bontrager comes in to Leo with the skills to take over for Troyer up front and more. He is capable of handling the ball for a big man and is quite fleet afoot for his 6-foot-8 frame.
“Caedmon is a good addition to our team,” Cogdell said. “He is long and a very good athlete. His ability to inside and outside makes him a tough matchup. He has the ability to defend, rebound, pass and score in a number of ways.
“We really like his intensity.”
Also back is West Virginia football signee Landen Livingston. The offensive lineman adds beef to the bench and is a quality player, as well as fellow senior Brody Hiteshew.
Another football player, Kaeden Miller, also adds depth.
Senior Luke LaGrange will see some action this year after moving back to Leo from Blackhawk Christian. Lagrange saw minutes early in his career at Leo but has seen injuries stand in the way from much playing time. Keep an eye on sophomores Trey Hiteshew and Jackson McGee, a pair of guards who should see some time based on circumstance.
Overall, while the team is missing a floor leader of the caliber of Blake Davison, Leo is still laden with talent, length and size. It enters the season the favorite once again in the Northeast 8, a league it won with a perfect 7-0 record last year.
Leo will look to improve its free throw shooting as it hit just 61 percent of its tries last year, which included Davison’s 80 percent mark. Allen barely finished above 50 percent for the season from the stripe, while Ruble hit at 65 percent.
“Despite having an experienced team this year, we will have guys stepping into new and different roles than they had a season ago,” Cogdell said. “There are also a couple of new additions who should be able to help us. It could be a process that takes some time to evolve.”
After 24 wins last year, Leo is looking to replenish the roster and battle again for a deep postseason run. It must replace Davison, likely with the contributions of several players, but there is a lot of production back. The combination of the addition of Bontrager and a manageable schedule that keeps the Lions local for the most part will be advantageous.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
The combination of Troyer and Davison gone hits as hard as any two departures for a single team in the area. Davison was the heart and soul of the Lions, while Troyer’s businesslike approach to his duties in the paint went oft underappreciated.
This team is good enough to roll through the NE8 again, but where does it stack up in Class 3A in the state?A season of improvement will go a long way towards deciding that.
Feb. 16 vs. Bishop Dwenger
As far as sectional foes go, the Saints may represent the biggest threat to the Lions come March. Bishop Dwenger is expected to be big and long, similar attributes to what Leo is able to employ on the regular.
A year ago, Leo lost three of its final four games of the regular season before getting on track for the postseason. One of those losses was to a Saints team that Leo then beat by 10 in the sectional championship game.
Coach Cogdell would rather not chance fate twice and take care of business against Dwenger both down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Caedmon Bontrager, senior
The transfer is immensely talented, although has never truly had the “normal” setting in which to showcase his skills. Lakewood Park Christian did not play many area power teams and Elevation Prep was non-IHSAA, so Bontrager is still an unknown quantity for many in the area.
If the big can step in and be that versatile forward that he appears to be and handles the grind of northeast Indiana basketball night in and night out, Leo will have the benefit of another established player in its rotation.