By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
Parity is typically a nasty word when used in sports. Parity usually means nobody is very good, and nobody can guess the winner.
Parity in the NIC-10 is a different word. The boys’ basketball season isn’t a matter of previously good teams falling back to the pack. The middle of the conference is raising their game to compete with the top.
“I think it is as up as it has ever been,” Rockton Hononegah Head Coach Mike Miller said. “The NIC-10 has actually become a basketball league. There’s good players all over the league. Kids play so much more than they used to, so you can find good players all over the place.”
The last several seasons, Rockford Auburn was a heavy favorite behind Fred Van Vleet and went 31-1 in the conference on their way to back-to-back titles. This season, every team feels like they have a chance as a wealth of young talent has flooded every school.
“Every coach is excited about the conference this year,” Belvidere Head Coach Aaron Pearson said. “There is no clear-cut favorite.”
Teams will not be playing for second place this season early on. What that will do is make games competitive night in and night out.
“I’m excited for our fans in the area,” Rockford Boylan Catholic Head Coach Mike Winters said. “A game between two middle-of-the-road teams has the chance to be exciting. I don’t know if anyone will leave a game disappointed with whether or not the game was competitive.”
A glance at the conference
• Belvidere: The Bucs return the most experience in the conference from a team that lost to Rockford East in the Regional Finals. Belvidere will rely heavily on four-year varsity star Kane Steger as well as junior Joe Beyers, who are among the top returning players in the conference. “Those are two guys we expect to lead the team,” Pearson said. “We feel good about this year. It’s exciting to see some things beginning to pay off for these kids.”
• Rockton Hononegah: Some will look at what Hononegah lost and expect them to slide. But they have one of the top coaches in Mike Miller, and they use unique systems on offense and defense that are tough to prepare for. More importantly, they do return Jack Granath, who proved with a load of double-doubles last year that he is ready to establish himself as one of the top players in the conference.
• Rockford Jefferson: Coach Todd Brannon went young last season with the J-Hawks, and the team had their growing pains. They hope that pays off this season. Three freshmen saw minutes for Jefferson last season. As that group becomes sophomores, it should help. Senior Jared Mayes is one of the most versatile players in the conference, and his senior leadership could help Jefferson compete for a conference title.
• Rockford East: The E-Rabs had enough to be excited about coming off last year’s run to the Super Sectionals. They return several players, led by Devion Smith, Austin Young and Jontrell Robinson, who played minutes during the playoff run. On top of that, they get to add an all-state transfer, Isaiah Box. “He’s meshed extremely well,” Head Coach Roy Sackmaster said. “It helps that he grew up with a lot of these kids. With what we have coming back, and how good of a player he is, I am looking forward to seeing a player of his caliber playing at a higher level.”
• Rockford Boylan Catholic: The Titans got to practice with a full team before the season started for the first time in several years. That should help, as two key players — DeMarcus Vines and Brock Stull — were able to get themselves ready for basketball after football season. Boylan’s hopes will rely on the anticipated improvement from Ben Grygiel, one of the favorites for Conference Player of the Year. “He’s made some good fundamental improvements to his game,” Head Coach Mike Winters said. “Nothing flashy, just things you take for granted. His ceiling is extremely high.”
• Belvidere North: There will be a youth movement taking hold at Belvidere North. After a close loss in a regional final two years ago, the Blue Thunder had trouble replacing their talent last season. The lower levels for Belvidere North, however, have been on a good run the last few years. North is hoping those players can turn things around for the program.
• Rockford Guilford: It has been a rough couple of years for the Guilford Vikings. But after some graduations and transfers, Head Coach Bobby Heisler has instilled stability in to the program, and the Vikings are looking to take off. “I think we have some strength in our guard play,” Heisler said. “We have a lot of speed, and we will use that. It’s a work in progress, and I like where we are. We have a lot of hard-working kids.”
• Freeport: The Freeport Pretzels likely had the second biggest loss to graduation in losing all-conference player Luke Norman. They will turn to sophomore Giovanni Offard to take over in his absence. Offard saw heavy minutes as a freshman and established himself as a force in the conference for years to come. The Pretzels will look to surround him with shooters and ask him to make plays.
• Machesney Park Harlem: The Huskies will be very inexperienced this year, but they will look to two returning guards to lead the way. Justin Vanwambeke is one of the top returning scorers in the conference, while Safari Hunt is a good shooter on the wing to complement him. “Justin is our leader,” Head Coach Chad Barger said. “He is one of the better players in the conference. We are going to rely and lean on him. Justin and Safari are going to need some help, and we need to find some guys to go around them.”
• Rockford Auburn: Lost in the dominant run at the varsity level for Auburn the last few years is the equally dominant run of their lower levels. They will be unleashed on the conference this year as Laytwan Porter and Phil Trammel will play heavy minutes. Transfer Quavion Scott will also help returning players Tramel Rideout and Contrell Curry as they look to forge a new era for Auburn basketball. “They want to establish their own identity and show what they can do,” Head Coach Bryan Ott said. “Even though some of these kids didn’t see the floor last year, they know what it takes to get down state. They can visualize that goal, and they know what it’s about.”
From the Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2012, issue