Written by: Matt Harris
2A Nuclear Conference (District 6)
PRESEASON COACHES POLL
1. North Fremont
4. West Jefferson
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Garrett Hawkes, North Fremont
Chris Hansen, North Fremont
Blake Oberhansley, North Fremont
Grayson Nelson, Firth
Jace Erickson, Firth
Ben Park, Firth
Dillon Jacobs, West Jefferson
Braeden Larsen, West Jefferson
Landen Larsen, West Jefferson
Michael Ure, Ririe
Larz Sutton, Ririe
Stockton Johnson, Ririe
Andy Gebhardt, Salmon
Eastern Idaho is known for the caliber and quality of its basketball teams, especially at the smaller school levels. In the 2A ranks, the east side of the state has been represented by at least one team in 14 of the last 17 state championship games, including nine games where two teams from the east battled for the title.
The 2A Nuclear Conference is shaping up to be a big time battle once again in 2018-19. Last season, Ririe edged North Fremont in a thrilling district championship game. A week later, Ririe came up just short in their bid for a state title, falling to Bear Lake at the Idaho Center for the second straight year. North Fremont also earned a bid to the state tournament for only the second time since 1927, but the Huskies went two-and-out.
This year, expect the Nuclear Conference to be wild, wacky, and a whole lot of fun. Whoever emerges from the league this year will arguably be the most battle-tested and prepared for a run at the state title.
The preseason favorite in the league is the North Fremont Huskies… and for good reason. The Huskies, led by new head coach Shannon Hill, did not lose a single player from last year’s squad.
“The entire team from last year is returning… and they believe in each other,” said Hill. “We will have more experience and are more battle-tested.”
A player that everyone will be watching this season is Garrett Hawkes, who earned First Team All-State honors a year ago. Hawkes, who some coaches have called the most complete player in the league, will look to lead North Fremont to not only back-to-back state tournament appearances, but to the dream of playing for and winning a state title.
Hawkes is joined by a ton of returning players, including Chris Hansen, Blake Oberhansley, Peyton Litton, Bridger Lenz, Drew Hill, Paul Wynn, Jordan Hess, Tyler Shuldberg, and Luke Hill.
Finding success on the defensive end is the primary goal for the Huskies this season.
“We believe defense will be the key to our season and we will be playing mostly man-to-man defense,” said Hill. North Fremont posted a 13-14 record a year ago.
The coach also said that implementing a team-first concept of sharing and distributing the ball to the open man and getting the highest percentage shot possible on the offensive end would also be very important to their success.
Finding, taking, and making high percentage shots has been something that the Ririe Bulldogs have excelled at the last two seasons.
Head coach Eric Torgerson, now in the sixth year of his second stint at the helm of the Bulldogs, feels that this year’s squad may possibly be able to light up the scoreboard even more than last year.
“This group might be the best shooting team I have ever coached,” he said. “We will run the floor looking for high percentage shots and opportunities and we can shoot well from the perimeter.”
Ririe certainly has the pieces in place to run an offense of that nature. Returning to the court for the Bulldogs are a host of seniors, including First Team All-State selection Michael Ure. At 6’7”, Ure is the main inside threat for Ririe, but has led the area in three-point shooting percentage the last two seasons.
On the guard line, Larz Sutton and Stockton Johnson bring back the most varsity experience overall. They are joined by fellow seniors Jonathon Scott, Mateo Rosen, and Arik Zeller, along with sophomore Carter Smith.
The last two years, Ririe has played for and come up short in the 2A state championship game. The Bulldogs went 22-4 last season.
“We’ve been runners-up at state three times (including 2004). I was head coach all three times and I can’t win the big one,” Torgerson joked. “But we are continuing our quest for the all-illusive state championship. Michael is an all-around threat. Larz is a quick defender and a shooting point guard. Stockton is our lock down defender and also shoots well.”
Torgerson said that his team’s shooting ability and experience will definitely be a strength for them over the course of the season. He added that they will have make adjustments when Ure is on the bench.
“Our weakness is our rebounding and size,” he said. “When Ure is out, we will have to board with an attitude.”
The Bulldogs are hoping that the work ethic and attitude of last year’s senior class can leave an imprint on this year’s group.
“The grit and determination left by last year’s seniors leaves a void we are working to replace,” said Torgerson. “This year, we have better flow and finesse and are waiting to see who steps up when we need the intensity and toughness that last year’s seniors gave us.”
The Firth Cougars went through much of the ‘wait-and-see’ game last season, much like Ririe is going to this season.
The Cougars, led by second year head coach Art Polson, were a young team a year ago under a new head coach with a new system. This year, it’s a different story.
“Last year, we had one starter from the previous year and this year we have four returning,” said Polson while comparing this year’s squad to last season’s crew. “With experience comes confidence. This is the second year with my system so naturally there was a bit of a learning curve [last year]. We’re over that now.”
Back on the floor this year for Firth is returning three-year starter Grayson Nelson. He will anchor the post while guards Colton Mecham, Jace Erickson, and Canon Carpenter lead the guard line. Tanner Killpack and Ben Park complete the Cougars’ frontcourt, along with Nelson.
Also look for Kaden Arave to have an impact for Firth. He led the Cougars JV squad in scoring a year ago. Polson said he also expects senior post Chris Ivie, a transfer from Mackay, to have a big impact as well.
“Grayson is the anchor of the team. Jace played great during the summer – he is a real leader and will trigger our offense this year,” said Polson of the Cougars, who posted a 12-11 record last season. “We are bigger, stronger, and faster than last year. Our overall team speed has increased dramatically.”
Anyone who has ever played Firth knows that pressure defense is their calling card. It was that way under former head coach Scott Adams and it’s no different under Polson.
“We want to utilize our team speed and athleticism both on the offense and defensive side of the ball,” Polson said. “We have great young men that support each other and their only focus is the success of the team.”
A team that many expect to see more success in the new campaign is West Jefferson.
The Panthers, who are led by third-year head coach Dave Hadley, believe they are ready to turn the corner this season.
“I feel like we are starting to reach a point where players are fitting into our system,” said Hadley of the Panthers, who went 10-13 a year ago. “We will be more diverse this year than the last two years. Honestly, I think we could be the team to surprise some people by the end of the year. We have a lot of room for growth.”
West Jefferson returns a number of players with varsity experience, including seniors Dalton Robins and Dillon Jacobs along with juniors Branson Morton, Braeden Larsen, and Landen Larsen.
Hadley said to look for senior Max Ricks to have an impact on the squad this year as well with sophomores Trystan Sauer and Jaden Burtenshaw playing key roles.
“I’m excited with our athleticism and ability to play more aggressively on the defensive end of the floor,” he said, noting he felt that any number of players could lead the way in scoring on any given night. “We are very small and will need to make teams play faster if we are going to succeed”
He added that that the Panthers should be more balanced this year overall.
“Last year, we relied a lot on Braxton Ramirez to lead us on both ends of the floor. This year, our balance is something we can rely on.”
Achieving balance and rebuilding the foundation of the program will be key elements for success for the Salmon Savages this year.
Salmon, which is now lead by head coach Ray Wood, is the underdog in the league and will be out to prove the naysayers wrong.
When asked which team in the conference could surprise some people this year, Wood gave a straightforward answer.
“Us,” he said. “Because we get underestimated.”
The Savages have not won more than four games in a single season since the start of the 2014-15 campaign and will look to build the base of their program this year in hopes that they can find sustained success in the years to come.
Wood said that his entire team is practically new to the varsity scene with the exception of Andy Gebhardt. He added that Brax Kauffman, who was expected to play a major role on the team this year, will instead serve as an assistant coach this season as he recovers from a knee injury sustained during football.
Salmon anticipates playing a run-and-gun style of offense and ramping up intense defense, according to Wood. The Savages last reached the state tournament in 2010, when they finished as the 3A state runner-up.
Overall, expect the Nuclear Conference to be highly competitive with plenty of stellar play from the league’s stars. Do not be surprised if one of these teams, or even two of them, reach the 2A state championship.