BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Despite the loss of two first-team all-conference picks last year, the Fort Madison Bloodhounds boys basketball team may be in a better position to compete for a conference title this year.
The Bloodhounds lost Kaleb Cresswell and Treavor James-Kokjohn to graduation, but are looking to play in a Southeast Conference that is more balanced with Mt. Pleasant graduating a good portion of the team that went 21-4 last year and lost at the state tournament to Waverly Shell-Rock.
The Hounds unofficially opened the season Saturday and came back from a three-point halftime deficit in the Hall of Pride scrimmage against West Burlington to win 61-56.
Senior Logan Rashid and junior Jayden Fedler led FMHS with 15 and 14 points, respectively, but seven other players got into the scoring for the Hounds.
Rashid averaged just under 10 points a game as a junior last year and was chilly from the floor in the first half Saturday night. He rebounded with eight points in the second half to lead the Hounds with 15 on the night.
Rashid said team chemistry is something that will help the Hounds counter the loss of Cresswell and James-Kokjohn. But he said FMHS will try to work the offense inside and out, but will still need to rely on perimeter shooting.
“I think the chemistry and gelling of the team will be a lot better, which will really help us,” Rashid said.
“I think we can have success with Jayden inside, but for the last couple years we’ve been that better shooting team in the conference, so we’ll use that outside range when we can.”
Fedler kept Fort Madison close in the first half against the Falcons with some good ball work inside and said his role will be to try and pick up the inside game for the Bloodhounds.
“I expect to carry his (James-Kokjohn’s) load, not entirely because we’re a different team this year. But I want to do my best to score and maybe hit some outside shots. We’re a little younger and less experience with some new faces around here. I think we’ll get the hang of it.”
Head Coach Ryan Wilson said the Hounds will have to be able to mixup their offense to keep teams from focusing solely on the Hounds’ outside abilities.
“For us to be successful, we have to get the ball inside. We’ve got players that can play inside and that’s not just our big guys. We have guards that can go inside and play,” Wilson said.
“We want to spread it around and get the ball into our posts that will open everything else up. We’re long and athletic so hopefully we can attack the basket and do some different things.”
With Fort Madison trailing by three at halftime, sporting several runs after the Falcons had stretched leads to as much as seven, the Bloodhounds raced to an 18-7 third quarter advantage and led 46-40 going into the final period.
West Burlington would tie the game at 53 with about 4 minutes left, but Fort Madison would pull away in a clean second half that only saw a combined two free throws attempted.
Senior Brandon Keester, who averaged just over seven points per outing last year and fired in five on Saturday including one from long range, said he thinks the Hounds will surprise some in the conference.
“I know we’re projected to go second in the conference, but I think we’re going to prove a lot of people wrong and win the conference this year,” Keester said during a warm-up Saturday morning.
“Our team is really athletic and we have some good shooters. We’re not as big, but we can make up for it with our athleticism.”
Wilson said the success will come down to executing each game’s plan.
“We’ve got quite a few shooters and ultimately it will come down to our plan each night. We’ve put a huge emphasis on our defense and our intensity. This is our first week in practice and we’ve got to be better defensively,” he said.
Fairfield seems to be the favorite to win the conference this year with a lot of seniors returning from a squad that took two from Fort Madison last year.
“Fairfield has to be the favorite to win the conference, but don’t sleep on Mt. Pleasant. They’re a great program and, just because Coach (Paul) Rundquist is gone, doesn’t mean they won’t compete. Their jayvee and freshman programs were successful last year,” Wilson said.
“But hopefully, we’ll do the right things and compete for a conference championship.”
The Bloodhounds have 35 students in the program this year. Others that will likely see playing time include Holy Trinity transfer Jake Eaves, who’s one of the taller kids on the team and can shoot from outside. Dayton Davis handled the ball very well for the Hounds Saturday night and, at times, ran the offense. He had five points against the Falcons.
Jace Burgher had six points for Fort Madison, Parker Denning had five, Mike Mosena chipped in with four and is another person Wilson can count on to handle the ball. Eaves had three points and Jordyn Gerdes added a bucket.
“It’s nice to see new kids in the program no matter where they come from. Thirty-five kids is the biggest we’ve had numbers-wise for quite some time.”