Not long ago, Middleton ruled the Southern Idaho Conference and the state with an iron fist, winning 72 straight games and four state championships in five years.
The Vikings have fallen on hard times the past two years as they underwent a rebuilding project with a young roster. While it’s still a long way from its powerhouse days, Middleton is once again favored to win the 4A SIC, based on a preseason vote of league coaches.
Here are scouting reports on all eight teams in the restructured league:
PLAYER TO WATCH
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Lydia Nieto, JR., G, Bishop Kelly
The 5-7 Nieto provided a spark for the Knights last year as their No. 2 scoring option, averaging 9.5 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 35 percent behind the 3-point line.
But with the graduation of 4A All-Idaho Player of the Year Gabi Harrington, the lightning quick guard shoulders the scoring load this season. And with her nose for the basket and long-range skills, she’s more than capable of stepping up.
When the shots aren’t falling, the second-team All-Idaho pick can turn defense into offense with steals and quick runouts.
“She is fast and puts a lot of pressure on your guards,” Vallivue coach Darrin Shindle said.
BISHOP KELLY KNIGHTS
Coach: Derek McCormick, 10th season
Last year: 20-6, 7-3 4A SIC
Returning starters: Lydia Nieto, jr., G
Outlook: The reigning district champ and state runner-up starts the year young with the loss of seven seniors, including 4A All-Idaho Player of the Year Gabi Harrington. McCormick believes he has a talented and athletic roster that can compete for another district title. But cautions it’ll take time for the Knights to get up to full speed.
Coach: William Rodgers, third season
Last year: 17-10, 6-4 4A SIC
Returning starters: Jalen Callendar, so., G/F; Lita Forse, sr., P
Outlook: Last season marked a turning point for the Cougars, who not only qualified for state for the first time since 2001, but also posted their first winning season since 2001. Caldwell has replaced seven seniors, but Forse gives it a powerful post to build around. And while the Cougars are young, Rodgers said they are more athletic this year.
Coach: Laraine Harrison, second season
Last year: 22-6, 9-1 3A SRV
Returning starters: Morgan Mitchell, sr., F; Aly Kaiser, sr., G/F; Madi Jo Taylor, sr., G
Outlook: Emmett returned to the 4A level ready to contend right away. But a torn ACL has sidelined junior point guard Lillie Smith — a first-team 3A All-Idaho pick who averaged 18.3 points per game last season — for at least the regular season, and likely the entire year. The Huskies will lean on their inside game led by Mitchell and Lexi Childs until their backcourt can adjust to the loss.
Coach: Andy Jones, 15th season
Last year: 14-11, 3-7 4A SIC
Returning starters: Meriah Deugan, jr., G; Sage Huggins, sr., F; Rilee Moser, sr., P
Outlook: The former powerhouse missed state each of the past two years after qualifying for 11 years in a row. So how did the Vikings end up atop the preseason coaches’ poll? Experience. Middleton lost just two seniors, and Jones said the lineup is versatile and deep with no dropoff from one through 10. But he cautions he’s still looking for someone to grow into the point guard role.
MOUNTAIN HOME TIGERS
Coach: Brent Keener, 10th season
Last year: 2-21, 0-10 4A SIC
Returning starters: Adrie Blanksma, so., G; Jazzi Cristobal, so., PG; Jacey Carr, sr., P
Outlook: The Tigers struggled with a pair of freshmen starting last year. Those struggles have turned into experience and depth this season. Keener said the Tigers added strength and size with the addition of three posts who either transferred in or returned to their program after time off. But defense and rebounding remain concerns.
Coach: Tessa Mullinix, first season
Last year: Did not play
Returning starters: None
Outlook: The first-year program starts with many of the same problems new schools always do — lack of experience, a steep learning curve with a new coaching staff and no history to draw from. Mullinix said she’s focusing first on building the fundamentals, trust and relationships needed to establish a program before turning to wins and losses.
Coach: Cindy Pasta, 21st year
Last year: 13-11, 6-4 4A SIC
Returning starters: Natalie Robison, sr., PG; Madie Edwards, jr., G
Outlook: The Hawks start the year strong in the backcourt with Robison, a first-team all-conference point guard, and Edwards, an honorable mention. The pair leads a quick and athletic squad, and they can distribute to keep defenses honest. Pasta said Skyview isn’t as tall as in years past, making points in the paint hard to come by.
Coach: Darrin Shindle, first season
Last year: 1-21, 1-15 5A SIC
Returning starters: Sarah Reinecker, jr., W; Hattie Hruza, so., W; Tawni Morrison, so., W; Ashlee Montes, so., W
Outlook: Shindle joins the Falcons as they move down to 4A after two years as an assistant at Capital and five years as the head coach at Melba. He inherits a young squad with one senior. Shindle said Vallivue has relied on its athleticism in the open court early as it adjusts to the speed at the varsity level and learns his halfcourt offense.
4A SIC coaches’ poll
Team (1st-place votes)
1. Middleton (5)
2. Bishop Kelly (3)
5. Mountain Home