Paxton-Buckley-Loda showed with clarity it was he top of the Sangamon Valley Conference last season after running the table with a 6-0 record, but in its final year as a conference, the SVC likely will be much more competitive and might not be decided until the final day.

Central has a special class of seniors back, and it’s not alone in that regard, as all five local schools are returning plenty from their teams last season.

New coach, mostly same squad for Central

Leroy Parnell was promoted from his assistant job to the head coach at Central this season, and he brings back some of the most potent potential in the area, led by two-time all-conference and Daily Journal All-Area wing Jacob Shoven.

Shoven was third in the area with 19 points per game last year and has classmates Jay Lemenager, Chandler Burrow and Caden Perry returning, along with a promising junior class.

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the team has been working diligently to overcome the obstacles brought on by the tragedies of the year,” Parnell said. “The team is eager to get on the court and showcase [its] efforts in games.”

Cissna Park hopes to stay steady

It’s been two years now since Cissna Park made it to the IHSA Class 1A State Finals in Kevin Long’s final act as coach. Now in his second season manning the helm, Seth Johnson looks as if he’s going to keep the Timberwolves’ basketball factory running well.

Cissna Park tied with Central for second last year, and this year, the Timberwolves return one of two all-state honorable mentions from one year ago in Ian Rogers. Fellow letter-winner Malaki Verkler and his springy shoes are back as well to pair with a deep junior class.

“As a coaching staff, we’re very excited about the four lettermen we have returning,” Johnson said. “We will have a good group of juniors that we believe they are ready to compete at the varsity level. Everyone will have to take on bigger roles within the program, but they’re ready for it.”

Dwight looking to keep momentum

The Trojans showed a lot of promise in Jeremy Connor’s first year as head coach last year, and with one of the area’s most prolific offensive players in Brandon Ceylor leading an experienced team back, Dwight has a great chance at improving on its 3-3, fourth-place conference finish.

Ceylor was an all-conference selection and advanced to the final round of the state’s 3-point contest that was canceled because of COVID-19 last year. He has classmates Isaac Telford, Trent Tilley and Abe Riecke back as well. Sophomore big man Wyatt Thompson also is back with another year of experience after seeing plenty of run as a freshman and will have a bigger role after forwards Lane Thompson and Bryson Connor graduated.

“Really excited about this group,” Jeremy Connor said. “We did lose a lot of height from last year, but we are much faster overall as a team. This group of seniors are some of the hardest workers I have been around.”

Deep Watseka team ready to make a run

There’s bringing some talent back and then there’s bringing back what Watseka does. Conner Curry (11 points per game) and Drew Wittenborn (10 points per game) give the Warriors two double-digit scorers from a year ago to go along with four other starters and rotational players.

The Warriors lack a true center, but with guards such as Curry, Jameson Cluver and Jordan Schroeder and wings and forwards such as Wittenborn, Maddux Rigsby and Brayden Haines back, there’s plenty of athleticism for coach Chad Cluver and his defensive-minded approach.

“We’re athletic and can run the floor,” Chad Cluver said. “We will need great defense to create some easy offensive looks. Rebounding will be an Achilles heel, [but] if we can keep up the defense on a consistent basis, I feel like we can be tough to handle.”

Raiders hope balance pays off

Few area teams can boast a returning duo as Iroquois West can with Ryan Tilstra and Jack McMillan, a pair of seniors who can score in bunches. Tilstra was an all-conference and Daily Journal All-Area selection and with McMillan will lead an Iroquois West team that hopes to be effective with shooters like the two of them and equally strong inside with brothers Clayton and Cannon Leonard.

Cannon, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, already has received some NCAA Division I interest on the hardwood, and Clayton, a 6-foot-5 senior, has begun to do the same in football.

“We return 80 percent of our scoring from last season, including four starters and valuable bench players,” Raiders coach Zach Monk said. “With experience, senior leadership and size, Iroquois West hopes to compete on a nightly basis in the Sangamon Valley Conference.”

Momence looks to rebound

Momence normally has found itself right in the thick of SVC contention as of late, but there were some growing pains the team went through with new faces looking to adjust to the varsity level.

Now with those players, such as double-figure scorers Jasper Jones (12 points per game), Johnnie Williams (11 points per game) and Jaden Walls (10 points per game) back to blend with talented youngsters Haven Roberts and James Stevenson in the fold, coach Kevin Ecker is optimistic Momence can be closer to the top of the conference rather than the last-place finish it saw last year.

“We’re bringing back a lot of experience from last year’s team, but we’ll need to get meaningful production from our newcomers in order to be successful,” Ecker said. “We’re going to rely a lot on our athleticism in order to give us opportunities on the offensive and defensive ends of the court.”

Milford sets eyes on VVC crown

Milford coach Dave Caldwell knows what it takes to have a successful basketball team after decades of coaching — talented seniors who play defense and lead — and that’s exactly what he has with returning starters Trey Totheroh, Luke McCabe and Trace Fleming.

Caldwell will look for his returning seniors to be as energetic on defense as they are on offense, where McCabe and Fleming can score at will at times and Totheroh is already the school’s all-time assist leader from his point forward position.

Defensively, Caldwell rely on his experience as well as players such as Will Teig and Nick McKinley to win the Bearcats games and, hopefully, the Vermilion Valley Conference.

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.