5A/4A Inland Empire Conference Preview
Written by Brandon Hill
Players to Watch
Caden McLean, Post Falls
Jace McKarcher, Lewiston
Kolton Mitchell, Lake City
Cameron Cope, Coeur d’Alene
Colin Roos, Sandpoint
Just nine points separated the Post Falls Trojans from a 5A state championship in 2020.
The Trojans, led by one of the state’s most dominant athletes in Colby Gannett, simply ran out of time in a grueling battle with the Borah Lions, eventually falling 65-56.
Heading into a new year, Gannett no longer dons the Black and Orange of the Trojans, leaving a gaping hole in Head Coach Mike McLean’s roster.
“We will miss his experience and athleticism on the defensive end as well as his rebounding,” McLean said.
Gannett, a former league MVP and first-team all-state selection, now plays for Central Washington University. And while his skills on the court will be missed, McLean said there’s a crop of newcomers more than capable of filling Gannett’s rather large shoes.
Four seniors: Caden McLean, Cole Rutherford, Alex Horning and Issac Ballew all return to the Post Falls’ starting lineup, with Caden and Horning providing some all-league talent at the guard and wing position, respectively. McLean shared the 5A IEL MVP with Gannett last year, while Horning was named to the league’s first team.
McLean also added James Lee and Zack Rodriguez, also seniors, to the varsity lineup, creating a bench filled to the brim with upperclassmen leadership and experience. But all that talent will mean nothing, McLean said, if the team can produce on the road.
“All of our none conference games will be on the road, a longs ways away from PFHS so all of them will create different opportunities for us to grow as a team and attempt to reach our goals,” McLean said. “The IEL will be as good as it has since the 2015.”
Lewiston and Lake City, McLean said, each have the potential to run the league table in 2021, with loaded rosters giving the boys from up north a serious shot at taking over the state tournament in March.
“They return basically their entire teams from last season,” he said. “Both have playmakers on both ends of the court and both teams are very efficient on the defensive end.”
The Bengals return three key players in Jace McKarcher, Kash Land and George Forsman. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, will have Kolton Mitchell, Zach Johnson and Jack Kiesbuy all making a comeback.
Both Lewiston and Lake City finished with inches of each other in the district race last year. Lewiston lost just nine games, compared to Lake City’s 10, but the Timberwolves reached the state tournament, earning the league’s second seed. But Lake City didn’t last long, going 0-2 for an early exit.
Looking for an outside shot at a district title, the Coeur d’Alene Vikings look to rebound from a last-place finish in 2020. Junior post Cameron Cope, senior guard Like McLaughlin and senior post Owen Smith all return for the Vikings.
Looking to shake up the Coeur d’Alene culture, the Vikings’ brass brought in new Head Coach Jon Adams to whip his team into championship shape. Adams spent more than a decade coaching basketball in the state of Washington, including Whitworth University and Mead High School. Adams also recruited a pair of bright basketball minds to fill out his coaching staff.
“Both Shy Blake and Ryan Nipp are new to the staff. Both bring strong leadership, strategic thinking and player development experience,” Adams said.
Post Falls, Lewiston, Lake City and Coeur d’Alene won’t play by themselves this season, however. Last summer, the IEL moved to merge its 4A and 5A leagues, meaning three new teams will become regular-season rivals for the North’s top schools.
“The IEL coaches are well aware of how good opposing teams are this season,” said Sandpoint Head Coach Will Love. “There won’t be any surprises. Teams will have to play well to win.”
The Bulldogs, along with Moscow and Lakeland, will make up the 4A counterpart of the new IEL. The Bears bring the most championship experience as of last, finishing second in last year’s tournament after falling to Preston in the title game. The Bears earned a bid to the championship after a thrilling semifinal victory over Kuna, the heavy favorite heading into the matchup.
As for the Hawks, Lakeland expected to be the sole representative at the tournament for the 4A IEL after an 18-win season. But after losing the first game in a best of three district title series, the Bears pulled out a pair of wins to punch their ticket.
Sandpoint, meanwhile, looks to rebound after a winless season against league opponents. Love said a lot of last year’s struggles came down the stretch after injuries decimated his starting lineup.
“Our team was decimated by injuries last season,” Love said. “We lost four players to season-ending injuries early on and several other players suffered from nagging injuries throughout the season. The injuries affected our ability to perform consistently from game to game.”
The Bulldogs lost Kobe Banks and Ryan Roos from the starting lineup, but return Colin Roos, Aerie Vandenberg and Jacob Eldridge. Without any seniors, Love said he knows this year’s slate against a handful of 5A squads will be a grueling one.
“We look forward to each opportunity to play basketball during the season,” Love said. “We are a 4A team that plays in a combined 4A/5A league. Five of the six schools that we play will be ranked in the state polls. There will be some outstanding teams in North Idaho this season. Every game will be a challenge.”