Danville has dominated Division I of the Heartland Athletic Conference since its return two seasons ago, but it will certainly be a different looking Ironmen squad when they tip tonight against Shikellamy.
Coach Lenny Smith is out. Gary Grozier — a former Benton head coach and assistant girls coach at Danville and boys assistant at Central Columbia — takes over for Smith.
Smith led the Ironmen to 14 state playoff appearances in 18 seasons and three straight division championships. Danville won the HAC-II title in the 2017-2018 season.
Grozier lost three big contributors to last year’s team — Mavin James, who will play for Lycoming this season, along with point guard Jack Smith and sixth man Colton Sidler — to graduation.
Point guard K.J. Riley, and forwards Jagger Dressler and Dante Harward all return this season, though Riley is still a little beaten up from the Ironmen’s successful run to the PIAA Class 3A football semifinals back November. Riley broke his foot, but should be ready for the opener.
Add in a pandemic, shortened practice time due to the football success and the three-week shutdown, and Grozier will have his work cut out for him this season.
“We really haven’t had everybody together, yet. We’ve been teaching basic concepts, and some of the things we want do this season,” Grozier said. “Hopefully, (the players) can put those concepts together into exactly what we want done during the game.”
Grozier said the Ironmen have some obvious talent, but some of the guys who are expected to step into starting roles, or play larger roles off the bench, are inexperienced.
“It’s not gloom-and-doom; everybody is working hard; everybody’s been great. It’s just that some of these kids don’t have the experience,” Grozier said. “I think we’ll be OK.”
It certainly won’t be easy in new-look Division I. At least four teams, defending Class 4A champion Montoursville — which beat the Ironmen in the District 4 Class 4A championship game last year — Mifflinburg, Shamokin and Lewisburg feel as though they have a chance to unseat the Ironmen.
Montoursville suffered some graduation losses — center Hunter Loe joins James at Lycoming College for hoops, while sharp-shooter Hunter Shearer is a quarterback on the Lycoming football team. However, Mike Mussina and the Warriors have had their best stretch since the 1970s.
Though size might be an issue for Montoursville, guards Dillon Young, Josh Burger and Peyton Mussina will key the charge.
Mifflinburg returns perhaps the top player in the league in guard Isaiah Valentine, who helped the Wildcats turn a poor start into a pretty good finish when he returned from an injury suffered in last year’s opening game.
Jake Young returns inside for Mifflinburg, which has two strong building blocks. If its younger players can step into their roles, the Wildcats certainly will be in the thick of the division and district title race.
Shamokin has the one thing a lot of District 4 teams don’t have, plenty of size. Sophomore Cayan Lee and freshman Hunter Wertz are 6-6, while sophomore Jason Leiby is 6-5.
Aaron Frasch and Brent Reed are the top contributors returning in the backcourt for coach Chris Zimmerman’s Indians.
Shamokin also adds Jackson Kelly at guard for the Indians. Kelly, a senior, previously played at Sunbury Christian, but the Eagles’ athletics programs were shut down two years ago.
“They developed a camaraderie, and have stuck with each other through all of this,” Zimmerman said of his team. “This is a junior class that’s been waiting for its shot, and they all know Jackson because he played with them through eighth grade.”
Lewisburg has some big shoes to replace. Senior Nick Shedleski was a four-year starter in the middle for the Green Dragons, while C.J. Mabry (9.1 points per game) and Peter Lantz (8.4 points per game) were also big scoring contributors last season. Soccer standout Ben Liscum didn’t come out for his senior season, leaving a hole to fill at point guard for Lewisburg.
The Green Dragons will get help from 6-foot-3 Jake Hernandez. The junior was second last year in scoring for Shikellamy at 12.5 points per game, and shot 61 percent on 2-pointers last season.
Sophomore guard Cam Michaels and senior guard Dante Sims are both expected to play larger offensive roles.
“It puts a lot on both of them,” Lewisburg coach Matt Salsman said. “Dante was a big contributor at the defensive end for us, and did a lot of good things, but we didn’t ask him to score much. He’s going to have to this year.”
Both Selinsgrove and Shikellamy will again spend this classification as Class 5A schools, and participate in the District 11 playoffs if they qualify.
The only starter the Braves lost from last season is Hernandez. Top scorer Davis Marshall returns, as do guards Brayden Long and Nate Luciano, both heading into their third year as varsity contributors.
Selinsgrove lost top scorer Ivan DeJesus under second-year coach Ethan Hummel. The Seals will rely on their athleticism on the defensive end, while guards Brett Foor and Ryan Reich have the most experience.
“These guys really trust each other. If we have an open kick (to the wing), this year we’re going to make that pass,” Hummel said. “We didn’t have that trust last year, but an open shot is an open shot, and I think that will help.”