The Trailways Conference did some remodeling and the outcome is three new-look leagues in the Trailways East, Trailways West and Trailways South.
The new West comprises Cambria-Friesland, Fall River, Markesan, Montello, Pardeeville, Princeton/Green Lake, Randolph and Rio.
C-F, Pardeeville and Randolph were in the West division last year while Fall River and Rio were in the South and Markesan, Montello and Princeton/Green Lake were in the East — so even though there is some familiarity, there also will be a fair amount of getting to know each other.
What do those new faces and new styles of play mean as far as expectations go?
“Can’t say,” Markesan head coach John Koopman said. “It’s a new conference with teams I am not very familiar with, but Pardeeville will be very good as will Randolph and GLP.”
The following is a closer look at the area teams in conference:
MARKESAN (15-9 last year, 11-5 Trailways East)
The Hornets shape up to be the team to beat in the conference, with two of the top players in the state — seniors Drew Bernhagen and Carson Clark — steering the ship.
Bernhagen, who was the Trailways North Player of the Year as a sophomore, returns from a leg injury that cost him all but four games last season. In his limited action, he averaged more than 22 points per game.
During his absence, Clark balled out and earned POY honors by averaging 18.7 points per contest.
Austin Triggs, who scored 8.5 points per game last year, returns for his third varsity season.
With that trio coming back, Koopmans believes the Hornets will be competitive in every game.
“The conference will be very competitive with some really good players returning,” he said. “It will be competitive every night.”
Randolph (11-13, 10-6)
The Rockets stayed in the Trailways West after finishing third in the conference last season and head coach Tyler Fischer knows it’ll be a challenge to finish in the top half again.
“Our conference will be extremely tough this year, very competitive and a lot of strong teams,” he said.
The Rockets lost Xander Herpel (12 points per game last year, 7 rebounds) and Sean Smedema (9, 7) to graduation, but junior Jake Roberts is the big name that returns for the Rockets and he will be crucial to their success. As a sophomore, Roberts averaged 13.3 points a game.
Junior Sawyer Westra also returns after averaging 5.4 points a game and so does Levi Alsum, who averaged 5.1 points a game.
“(Our) goal is to compete within our tough conference, and use a tough non-conference schedule to learn and gain experience,” Fischer said.
CAMBRIA-FRIESLAND (16-8, 11-5)
Like Randolph, the Hilltoppers return to the Trailways West after having a successful go at it in conference play last season, finishing second behind Pardeeville at 13-3.
But they lost three very good players to graduation in Grant DeJager, Tyler Zacho and Bailey Smith, who all received first- or second team all-conference honors in 2016-17.
However, the Toppers will have Colt Wentland (7.2 points per game) and Joseph Pulver (5.4) to play with along with newcomer Reed Prochnow, who makes the jump from JV to varsity.
“Conference is very strong and top-heavy with five or six who could go very deep into March,” Hilltoppers head coach Derrick Smit said. “Our goal is to improve each and every night, taking one game and night at a time.”
Cambria-Friesland doesn’t have any seniors on the team and Smit said his team will be very young, small in stature and inexperienced.
FALL RIVER (16-8, 10-6 Trailways South)
The Pirates move over from the Trailways South, where they finished third in conference.
So coming into a new conference, head coach Arnie Oelke said he wants his team “to have fun and build a great team chemistry as the year progresses.”
“Hopefully, we will finish in the top part of the conference,” he added.
Oelke coached a Pirates team that averaged 60 points a game last year and returns Parker Morton (14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds per game), Tanner Liebenthal (8.6, 4.2), Luke Figol (2.8, 1.8), Jared Klein (3, 1.7) and Dylan Dykstra (1, 1.6) — giving Fall River a good chance at repeating that offensive success in 2017-18.
But the Pirates did lose starters Nicoles Brozek, Colten Roberts and Zac Koch.
That means the three new starters and the players asked to step into bigger roles in general will need to jell in a hurry in order to compete for the league title.
“This conference will be loaded with some very good quality teams from top to bottom,” Oelke said. “In order to win conference, you will need to be prepared each and every game.
“I do not see anyone that will go undefeated. If they do, it will be well deserved.”