The 2019-20 basketball season was very good to many teams, setting up what could be a terrific season next year.
But maybe no team was in more need of something really good to happen to its program than Ottumwa.
With their fourth coach in four years, the Bulldogs finally hit on something this season. Their 13 wins were their most in 16 years. They had an all-state player for the first time in eight.
Now, they have the All-Courier captain and coach of the year.
But it wasn’t easy. Pekin and Albia both had outstanding seasons that took both to the cusp of the state tournament. Both teams won their respective conference/division, and combined for 37 wins.
The good news is all three — and other young teams in the area — should be factors next year as they aim to either build on their success or make another push.
This year’s All-Courier team features the area’s two all-state players — Ottumwa’s Trae Swartz and Albia’s Blake Chance — along with a host of players who were key during their team’s regular season and postseason.
The All-Courier boys basketball team:
Trae Swartz, Ottumwa, Jr.
If there is a face to the turnaround for Ottumwa, it is Swartz. The Class 4A second-team all-stater by the Iowa Print Sports Writers Association finished third in 4A in points per game (23.1) and scored at least 30 points in a game seven times. His 42-point performance against Des Moines North broke a 65-year-old school record, and he shot 48 percent from 3-point range. He is in prime position for a big senior season as one of four starters returning. Swartz was Ottumwa’s first all-state player since Faith Pope in 2012.
Blake Chance, Albia, Jr.
Chance earned third-team all-state honors in Class 2A after helping the Blue Demons to an 18-win season and South Central Conference championship. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 13.7 points per game, but traded in some of those points from last year for more assists this year, racking up 171 to finish second in 2A and fifth among all four classes. As part of a junior-heavy team, he also could have a bigger season next year.
Joe Hammer, Ottumwa, Jr.
Hammer started slowly as a scorer, but blossomed over the final half of the season, helping Swartz form a potent guard-post tandem as the Bulldogs won 10 of their final 13 games. He earned second-team all-CIML Metro honors after averaging 10 points per game. He shot 35 percent from 3-point range, but finished the season with 117 assists, the fourth-highest total in Class 4A.
Brady Millikin, Pekin, Jr.
When he was locked in as a shooter, few teams could defend him. The guard averaged a team-best 13.3 points per game and shot 44 percent from 3-point range in earning first-team SEI Superconference North Division honors, but he also was a deft passer, as he had 130 assists. He scored 31 points in a Class 1A district semifinal win over Notre Dame, and keyed the team to a 19-5 season and a second straight North Division title. Pekin lost to Springville in a substate final.
Brayden Sobaski, Pekin, Soph.
Sobaski came a long way this season in his first extended playing time. He averaged 9.2 points per game, but saved some of his better games for the postseason, including a 21-point performance against Springville. He shot 38 percent from 3-point range, had 44 assists an 38 steals, as well as 53 blocked shots.
Kalen Walker, EBF, Sr.
On a team that had to replace everyone from back-to-back South Central Conference titles, Walker helped produce a good season for the Rockets. He averaged 11.8 points per game, one of three players on the team in double figures, and shot 30 percent from 3-point range. However, his quickness was noticeable at the point-guard spot, as he had 110 assists and 58 steals, both easily leading the team. EBF finished 9-14 despite having to retool the roster.
Brayden Messamaker, Albia, Jr.
Messamaker missed a pair of games with an injury, but still finished second on the team by averaging 11.5 points per game. He also made 58 3-pointers and shot 40 percent from 3-point range this season. Messamaker was a second-team all-SCC selection.
Griffin Greiner, Cardinal, Soph.
Greiner’s play this season helped the Comets rejuvenate their program as well, as their 10 wins were the most since the 2014-15 season. Greiner led the team in scoring (13.6 points per game), assists (80) and steals (72) for a team whose athleticism created a free-wheeling and exciting level of play. Greiner, a first-team all-Superconference South Division selection, spearheaded the effort and the Comets appear to have big things in store as four starters were sophomores.
Dalton Reeves, Davis County, Soph.
Reeves, a first-team all-SCC selection, had a big season in an otherwise struggling year for the Mustangs, who were 6-15. Reeves pumped in 16.6 points per game, shot 50 percent from the floor and averaged 6.2 rebounds per game. Davis County also featured a young lineup, with two sophomores and three juniors.
Mason Harter, Sigourney, Fr.
The Savages’ freshman flashed plenty of promise this season, as he averaged a double-double of 14.5 points and 10.4 rebounds for a team that finished 10-12. He also had 34 assists and 24 steals, and shot 48 percent from the floor. He earned second-team all-South Iowa Cedar League honors.
Neil Hartz, Ottumwa
The honor could have went to at least two other coaches, but Hartz gets the nod for leading the Bulldogs to their best season since 2004 and their first postseason win since 2008. Ottumwa had won just 12 games the previous to years before Hartz changed the culture of the team. The Bulldogs lost seven of their first 10 games, many of them by a possession or two, but started to win close games the second half of the year to finish 13-10. They rallied from double-digit deficits against Des Moines North and Burlington to earn wins. Hartz had been a longtime assistant with the program, but will now work with a team next season with four returning starters.