After losing their two top players, the Wolverines will test the team concept in an effort to keep their league winning streak alive.
When taking stock of the Bellevue High School boys basketball program, the two biggest proven commodities are gone from last season’s fourth-place Class 3A state-tournament team.
But the system remains in place.
With leading scorers and inside-out presence of big man Mikey Henn and guard Sharif Khan moving onto college after graduation, a big void was left on the Wolverines’ roster.
5 teams to watch
Bellevue: The Wolverines opened the season with a 46-game winning streak against KingCo 3A/2A teams and a 26-game home-court string of victories.
Lake Washington: With a trio of talented returning guards — Sam Linsky, Jordan Richter and Beau Heimdahl — to go with sophomore post player Griffin Barker (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the Kangaroos should have the elements to challenge Bellevue. The Kangs tied Mercer Island for second last season.
Mercer Island: Left to carry the load from last year’s 18-8 squad, which was one win away from reaching state, are Griffin Emanuels (7.2 ppg) and Shain Scott (6.0 ppg).
Liberty: The Patriots raised the bar for the program by reaching regionals last season. They return nine lettermen from a team that finished second at districts.
Redmond: The move from KingCo 4A to KingCo 3A/2A could serve the Mustangs well. The Stangs feature eight seniors who need to gain more court experience and come off a 9-7 finish for fourth place.
Bellevue: How will the defending state champions survive after losing all five starters from last season’s 29-0 team? Assistant coach Noah Wulbert takes over the program from Leah Krautter.
Juanita: The Rebels were going to be led by a pair of DI recruits this season, but the departure of 6-2 senior Shalexxus Aaron to live in Southern California leaves the reins of the team with Tea Adams.
Redmond: The Mustangs are a wild card in the KingCo 3A/2A this season, moving into the league after playing in KingCo 4A for years, but return a solid squad.
Interlake: The Saints return their top three scorers from last season from a team that went 11-9. Interlake will attempt to keep the positive momentum going under first-year coach Jamie Pearsall.
Mercer Island: The Islanders have one of the best post players in the state in Anna Luce and that could make them a threat to challenge defending champion Bellevue.
It’s all about team, and even more so in 2016-17.
“Obviously, we’re going to miss those two [players], as they provided a lot of leadership and scoring for us,” said coach Chris O’Connor, in his 11th year leading the program. “We lose a lot of good players every year, but guys just kind of step up because they really buy into our system. They have an understanding of how to play the game the right way.
“I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been able to be successful for so long.”
It is time for guys such as Andrew Kenny, a 6-foot-6 junior swingman, to show their growth and emerge to keep the Bellevue program at its recent high-performance level. Kenny was the third option for the Wolverines, averaging 11.3 points and six rebounds per game.
“Those guys [Henn and Khan] taught us a lot and we have a lot more younger guys,” said Kenny, who during some basic drills in practice hammered down several thunderous dunks to the approval of teammates. “We have to really come together as a group and play together more so than we did and not rely on them.”
Bellevue (3-0, 2-0 KingCo), which has placed at state seven of the last 10 seasons, owns a 48-game winning streak over KingCo 3A/2A competition and with a season-opening 62-30 victory over Beamer on Nov. 29 hiked its home-court streak to 27 games.
“We all believe in each other,” said Kenny, who hopes this team is good enough to take KingCo 3A/2A for the fourth consecutive season. “We come into districts, and people think, ‘Oh, we’re Bellevue, we haven’t played anyone.’ But we prepare throughout the season like we’re [Rainier] Beach, Garfield. Our practices are intense.”
The admittedly quiet Kenny won’t be alone in leading the Wolverines. The team will operate with essentially a two point-guard system of Eastside Catholic sophomore transfer Jalen Love and junior Spencer Birkeland, who returns after being forced to quit the squad before last season started for personal reasons.
“I don’t think we have to rely on Andrew, but he’s a good player,” O’Connor said. “We have a lot of good pieces and Andrew is patient and lets the game come to him. He’s going to have a lot of good opportunities to score and do what he can do.”
5 players to watch
Andrew Kenny, Bellevue (G/F, 6-6, Jr.): The versatile player comes off a solid sophomore season in which he averaged 11.3 points and 6 rebounds per game, but now it’s his turn to step into the spotlight.
Ravi Regan-Hughes, Juanita (F-C, 6-6, Sr.): The sweet-shooting left-hander can score inside and all the way out to three-point range, giving the Rebels some offensive versatility.
Sam Linsky, Lake Washington (PG, 6-2, Sr.): The Kangaroos get back one of the top players in the league in Linsky, who averaged 10 points per game, 5.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists for team that went 15-8.
Nick Chung, Liberty (PG, 5-9, Jr.): The Patriots’ floor leader averaged 7 points and 5 assists per game last season and should see a jump in those numbers.
Griffin Barker, Lake Washington (F-C, 6-5, So.): The Kangaroos’ inside presence was impressive as a freshman, averaging 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds with the varsity.
Tea Adams, Juanita (PG, 5-10, Sr.): Heralded by her coach, Todd Brink, as “the potential best point guard in the state,” she averaged 20 points per game, 2.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 3.2 steals and has committed to play at San Diego State.
Anna Luce, Mercer Island (F-C, 6-2, Sr.): The Dartmouth commit is one of the toughest matchups inside as she averaged 18.0 points per game, 9.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Ann-Marie Jacobs, Bellevue (G-F, 6-0, Sr.): The Lehigh University commit averaged 6.9 points per game on last year’s title team.
Samantha Kelderman, Liberty (F, 5-10, Sr.): The Patriots’ top returnee could make the jump to become one of the conference’s elite players; she brings in averages of 11.4 points and 9.9 rebounds from last season.
Promise Taylor, Sammamish (PF-C, 6-5, Sr.): The school’s volleyball standout decided to return to basketball after taking her junior year off. Taylor, who has committed to Ole Miss, averaged 12 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4 assists.
Colin Suter, a 6-4 senior small forward, comes back after averaging nine points and four rebounds. Hunter Hansen, a 6-5 sophomore forward, was steady with six points and four rebounds an outing as a freshman.
“When someone good leaves, we just keep it going,” said O’Connor, who recalls running around the Seattle University locker room when his father, Bill, coached players such as Carl Ervin, Jawann Oldham, Keith Harrell, Frank Oleynick and Clint Richardson.
Those early days planted the coaching seeds for the younger O’Connor, who has helped the Wolverines reach the Sea-King District final the last two seasons only to see blowout losses to Rainier Beach and Garfield.
O’Connor hopes a selfless approach can push them over the top.
“We kind of hang our hat on defense and sharing the ball on offense,” O’Connor said. “Our league is competitive and every game, we’re getting everybody’s best shot. Every game we have to be really prepared. It helps us prepare for district knowing that.”