Pioneer boys basketball preview: McKaig, Sweet most experienced returnees as Panthers move up to 2A
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
The Pioneer boys basketball team started last season 2-10 over their first 12 games before finishing 7-6 over their final 13 games.
That included wins over Frontier and South Newton in the sectional.
By the end of the season, coach Darren McKaig had elected to start the team’s five seniors while bringing junior Caleb Sweet and sophomore Drew McKaig off the bench.
Now Drew McKaig and Sweet are the most experienced returnees, and coach McKaig is having to figure out a new lineup with guards Brock Robinson and Gavin Clem, forward Christian Scott and forwards Oscar Solano and Jacob Zeigler having graduated.
“We have some younger guys that are going to move up who do play on their own travel teams,” coach McKaig said. “So we had guys playing games on their own travel teams. So we had guys playing games during the summer. We just didn’t do a whole lot together as a team. But we’re looking for several guys to improve over where they were last year.”
Coach McKaig said Drew McKaig played against older players on the travel ball circuit.
“He played up a year this last year, so he was playing against seniors all summer long,” coach McKaig said. “I think he’s really worked on his shot. I think his shot is going to be a lot more consistent. His freshman year, he shot about 25 percent from 3. Last year, he was right at 30 percent. I expect him to improve on that this year.”
Coach McKaig praised Sweet for his efficiency.
“He always takes his time,” coach McKaig said. “Every shot he takes is a good shot. He’ll probably be in the post quite a bit, and he’ll be in there. He’ll be shot-faking, trying to get people in the air. He’ll kick it out if he doesn’t feel like he can take a good shot. So he’ll just be a really smart player that keeps the ball moving, but we really need him to score this year too. It would be nice to get 8 to 10 points a game out of him. That would be quite a big jump from last year, but with those seniors gone, there are certainly shots to be had. Hopefully, he’ll step up and score big for us.”
Andrew Helton, a 5-8 guard, and Gage Harper, a 6-2 forward, are the other seniors on the roster. Both are varsity newcomers.
Brayden Erickson, a 5-11 junior, will take over at point guard.
“He played in 21 varsity games last year but only about four minutes a game,” coach McKaig said. “He’s probably the hardest worker on the team. He sprints everywhere. He works harder than anybody, and he’ll take great pride in his ballhandling. I know I can rely on him to handle the ball.”
The tallest player on the roster is 6-2, and seven players are listed under 6-0.
McKaig foresees a “four-out, one-in” offensive look.
“We might be playing more of a five-guard look almost,” coach McKaig said. “We’ll still have one guy in the post, but they might be rotating out to the perimeter, kind of like we did last year. … We don’t really have anybody over 6-2, so rebounding will be a concern, but we’ll figure it out.”
In addition to Drew McKaig and Erickson, the other two juniors on the roster are Luke Blackman and Rylahn Toloza.
“We’re going to have to have Rylahn Toloza help us out,” coach McKaig said. “He’ll get a lot of minutes. He’s probably one of the best athletes on the team. He’s only 5-6, but he may end up being one of our leading rebounders just flying down from the guard spot. He’s extremely quick. … He’ll just get a lot of rebounds off loose balls. He has a knack for getting some deflections and some steals. He’ll just get some opportunistic points, and he’ll be able to stay in front of anybody with his quickness. So I think he’ll really help us.”
The team’s three sophomores are forward Lucas Perry, guard Ryan Looker and forward Noah Miller.
“He’s one of our better shooters,” coach McKaig said of Perry. “If we can get Erickson, Drew and Toloza to get some good drives going to the rim and other teams have to help, I feel completely comfortable kicking it out to Luicas to knock down some shots.
“Ryan Looker, he’s another sophomore, he may not be quite as athletic … but he's a good shooter, so he’d fall into a similar role.”
Micah Rans, a 5-6 freshman, also made the varsity roster.
Defensively, Pioneer will continue to run its 2-3 zone upon which they have relied since McKaig, in his third season, became coach.
“We’re working on it,” coach McKaig said. “It’s going to be another big part of our plan. I think they believe in it. I think they’d rather do that than play man to man. I think they’re going to pick it up just fine.”
Coach McKaig was later asked if this team might be inclined to make the same progression that they did last year or if they can start faster.
“It’s hard to tell,” coach McKaig said. “Of course, we hope that we’re going to win more games at the start of the year. With so many new players coming together, guys who are new to the program, guys who are new to varsity, you don’t really know how they’re going to gel together until they get into a battle with another team.
“We have potential to win some games early. But again, it will just be hard to tell until we actually get to go do it.”
Pioneer added the Indiana Kitchen Classic from Dec. 19-23. The tournament begins with a girls-boys home doubleheader against Frankfort on Dec. 19. Pioneer will play either Delphi or Winamac on Dec. 20 and a third game later in the week.
Rossville was dropped from the schedule to make room for the tournament.
Nov. 30 – at Logansport, 8 p.m. (Cass County Invitational semifinal)
Dec. 2 – vs. Lewis Cass or Caston (Cass County Invitational at Logansport)
Dec. 9 – vs. Triton, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 10 – at North Miami, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 16 – at LaVille, 8 p.m.
Dec. 17 – vs. Argos, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 19-23 – Indiana Kitchen Classic
Dec. 27 – vs. Tri-Township, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 6 – at Frontier, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 7 – vs. Faith Christian, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 13 – vs. Lewis Cass, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 14 – at Carroll (Flora), 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 20 – at West Central, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 27 – vs. Caston, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 – vs. North Judson, 8 p.m.
Feb. 4 – at Indiana Deaf, 12:30 p.m.
Feb. 7 – at Knox, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 10 – vs. Culver, 7 p.m.
Feb. 17 – at Winamac, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 18 – at North White, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 24 – at Tri-County, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 28-March 4 – Class 2A, Sectional 36 at Rochester
Class 2A, Sectional 36
Pioneer, Lewis Cass, North Miami, Rochester, Wabash, Winamac