While much of the Northeast Corner Conference's upper echelon remains under consistent leadership, the league's biggest school will see familiar faces guiding both basketball squads – albeit in different roles.
Brandon Appleton resigned the girls post at Angola to take over coaching the boys program, while Nick Burlingame, who graduated from Angola in 2010, will assume the coaching role for the Hornets girls after spending the last three seasons as Lakeland's boys basketball coach.
And Angola's girls squad returns perhaps the area's top senior in Hanna Knoll, who led the Hornets to a 20-game win streak in a winter that included regular-season and conference-tournament titles. But it was Garrett that emerged out of the Class 3A sectional featuring the Hornets, despite finishing sixth in the NECC last season with a 5-5 conference record.
“We have to bring it every day, we really do,” Burlingame said. “We're a little bit behind with just timing, so it's essential to us that we don't take a moment off. We have to be hungry and we have to be ready to go.
“Everyone looks at us as the top dog and they're going to give us our best shot. We have to play our game.”
Garrett returns plenty of talent. Sophomore Bailey Kelham set the school record – regardless of gender – with 45 points in a single game. Junior Nataley Armstrong – the school's single-game assist record holder with 12 – will provide coach Bob Lapadot with a steady hand in directing the offense.
“Bailey can score on anyone 1-on-1, but (she) has become a very good passer,” Lapadot said. “Nataley has improved her 3-point shot, and now (opponents) can't sag off her and only play the drive.
“We hope to be in the mix for a NECC title. We have a lot of the top teams at home this year, so we hope to use that to our advantage.”
It's not just the Hornets and Railroaders that look to play pivotal roles in the NECC this year; Central Noble finished 7-3 in conference play in its first-ever season as a Class 3A school.
The 2018 Class 2A state champions and 2019 Class 2A regional champions return their top four scorers in Bridgette Gray (13.5 points per game) and Lydia Andrews (8.3), Madison Vice (6.8) and Meghan Kiebel (5.9).
“(Central Noble is) always a factor because (coach Josh) Treesh gets them to defend at a high level, and they execute the flex offense very well,” Lapadot said.
Fairfield and Lakeland each feature a prolific athlete at the top of their respective rosters, and could put a crimp in anyone's title plans. Six-foot sophomore Brea Garber, the daughter of Falcons head coach Brodie Garber, proved a thorn in the side of many NECC foes last year, as did Bailey Hartsough (15.3 points per game in 2019-20) for the Lakers.
“I really think Lakeland has some talented girls,” Burlingame said.
“They're hungry and they want to prove themselves this year the way they did in volleyball, and Brea (Garber) is just a stud.”
5 games to watch
Fairfield at Churubusco, Nov. 19: New Eagles coach David Goodwell gets a good test in his first opportunity to coach against a NECC foe.
Angola at Fairfield, Dec. 1: The Hornets finish out a string of four tough road games in an eight-day stretch with the Falcons and star Brea Garber.
Central Noble at Garrett, Jan. 8: The Railroaders face a stalwart defensive battle with the Cougars in their first home game after a seven-game stretch on the road.
NECC Tournament championship, Jan. 16: The conference's sizable membership turns the league tournament into a grinder, with eight teams facing four games in five days to win this hardware.
Eastside at West Noble, Jan. 19: If the Blazers' NECC title hopes are still alive, the Chargers could pose a threat if Eastside gets caught looking ahead to its next game three days later at Central Noble.