by Michael Smith
It’s not easy to replace any starter for a high school basketball team.
It’s even more difficult when the prior year’s squad lost four starters to graduation. That’s exactly the situation the Grain Valley boys basketball team finds itself in.
The Eagles lost four starters and a bench player to graduation, leaving head coach Andy Herbert with numerous holes to fill in his rotation.
Even while losing so many experienced players from the 2022-23 team, Grain Valley has some savvy players entering the fold who have a high basketball IQ, according to Herbert.
“I really like our group,” Herbert said. “They really enjoy playing basketball and they work at it. We have a really high IQ. They know how to play and know what they’re doing.”
This son and starting guard Eli Herbert agreed.
“I really like our IQ this year,” Eli said. “We are really smart. Like last year, we are so together. We are a tight-knit group and that will help us win a lot of games this year.”
Sophomore Eli Herbert will be the lone returning starter and was one of the best players in the Kansas City area as a freshman. The sharpshooting combo guard averaged 16.9 points, 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game and shot 36.6 percent from the field last season, helping lead his team to a solid 18-10 record.
He could be poised for an even bigger year in 2023-24 as he comes back with the most varsity experience.
Also returning are seniors Stylz Blackmon, Jack Schoen and Logan Marcum, all of whom came off the bench last season but are likely to be in the starting lineup this year. Blackmon was a backup forward for the Eagles in 2022-23 and provided the Eagles with solid rebounding and defense.
Schoen, like Herbert, is a combo guard who can handle the ball and is an advanced-level passer. He can also effectively get to the rim on the dribble drive and is a solid perimeter defender.
“When one of us (him or Eli Herbert) gets tired, the other can bring the ball up,” Schoen said. “I am good at getting it in the lane and I can pass it a little bit. I also want to guard the other team’s best player.”
Marcum is an all-around player who can do a little bit of everything. He is a solid shooter, can drive to the basket effectively and can play solid defense.
“Last year, when someone wasn’t playing well, I would come in off the bench and fill their role,” he said. “This year, I will have a bigger role.”
The Eagles have two players who are 6-foot-4 or taller that can fill the hole left behind by last year’s starting forward Rhylan Alcanter. Sophomores Samuel Pendergrass and junior Evan Colson could help Stylz with rebounding an interior defense.
“Sam is a big, strong kid who is a tough matchup under the basket,” Andy Herbert said. “And Evan is a junior and is very skilled and very smart. He’s also a very good passer and shooter.”
“We will be able to have two bigs in the lineup now because Evan can space the floor.”
At the guard position, newcomers like Aaron Barr, Matthew Leonard and Raif Graham could also see minutes with the varsity team and all can be relied upon to handle the ball and pass.
“Matthew has some of the quickest hands I have ever seen,” Eli Herbert said. “Raif will be huge for us. He’s always bringing energy. He’s what we need.”
With so many guards that can handle the ball and bring the ball down the court, the Eagles will look to push the tempo of the offense and get easy looks in transition as often as they can. Last season, the Eagles depended more on halfcourt sets.
“We will be different this year,” Eli Herbert. “We are faster and we can get up and down a little better and I think we are more talented this year, individually.
“Once we get the rebound, we can just get up and go.”
With a team that collectively has a high basketball IQ and versatility, this could be a year the Eagles could make a run at a Suburban White Conference championship and a district title.
“We think we can win our conference and we want to win districts,” Eli said. “We also just want to get better as a team and not necessarily worry about how many games we win.”
From left, Eli Herbert, Jack Schoen and Logan Marcum are three of the four returning rotation players for Grain Valley who will all likely start in 2023-2024. Photo credit: Michael Smith
Sophomore Eli Herbert unleashes an elbow jumper during practice Monday.
Photo credit: Michael Smith
Senior Logan Marcum gathers the ball for a layup during a drill in practice Monday. Photo credit: Michael Smith