Sunday marks exactly one month until the Section II boys’ basketball committee announces the seeds for the area’s postseason tournaments.
With league title races starting to heat up after the holidays and the season racing past the midway point, here’s a look at five teams and five players who have defined the first half of the season and should have big impacts during the stretch run.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Ballston Spa: The Scotties’ 11-0 start to the season has been one of the best stories in Section II basketball this winter. Led by the high-scoring trio of Nicholas Verdile (18.8 ppg), Mike Miller (16.6 ppg) and Benjamin Phillips (12.4 ppg), head coach Ben Eldridge’s team toughed out some early-season Suburban Council wins over Shenendehowa and Colonie, got some solid non-league wins in December and have been impressive since Suburban play resumed earlier this month with wins over Troy, Schenectady and CBA.
Mekeel Christian Academy: In new territory as a Class AA squad this season, head coach Chad Bowman’s Lions are off to a 7-0 start. Playing an independent schedule mostly made up of teams outside of Section II, Mekeel — last year’s Class A area champions — has been impressive in wins over the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bishop Ludden and New Hartford, with 6-foot-6 sophomore Isiah Rose taking center stage as one of the area’s breakout players.
Catholic Central: The Crusaders have looked like the class of the Colonial Council so far, off to an 11-0 start with only Lansingburgh able to stay within single digits. Catholic Central is buoyed by perhaps the area’s most exciting prospect, 6-foot-3 freshman guard Darien Moore. A breakout star as an eighth-grader, Moore is averaging 24 points per game this season.
Duanesburg: As dominant as Catholic Central’s been in the Colonial Council, Duanesburg’s been just as strong — if not even moreso — in the Western Athletic Conference. The Eagles are off to a 13-0 start, and outside of a 39-38 win over Fonda-Fultonville in early December, nobody else has played them closer than 24 points. The lineup is balanced, but sophomore Jeffrey Mulhern leads the way at 19.2 points per game.
Stillwater: A laundry list of dramatic wins sent Stillwater on its way to a Class C state championship game appearance in 2022, and while a few key contributors are gone from that squad, coach Bruce Lilac still has a relatively young group off to an 8-2 start. Junior center Jaxon Mueller and junior guard Lukas Lilac are one of the best inside-outside duos in the area’s small-school scene.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ben Kline, 6-3, Jr., G, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake: The Spartans have been building a potential Class A championship contender under head coach Kevin Himmelwright for the last couple of seasons. Kline, who transferred to Burnt Hills from Scotia-Glenville, is potentially the last piece of that puzzle. A dynamic scorer, Kline’s 18.5 points per game is third-best in the Suburban Council.
Peyton Smith, 6-9, Sr., F, Hudson Falls: Section II’s top big man, Smith is a 6-foot-9, 230-pound senior whose game very much resembles another former Hudson Falls big man — current UAlbany freshman Jonathan Beagle. Smith is averaging a Section II-best 27.4 points per game for the Tigers, dominates in the post and can step out and shoot, as evidenced by his season-high four 3-pointers in Tuesday’s win over Scotia-Glenville.
Ceasar Thompson, 6-2, Sr., G/F, Amsterdam: The Running Rams push the pace and spread the ball around plenty under head coach Tim Jones, with five players — Thompson, Jhai Vellon, Victor Dueno, Alec Bartone and JaShean Vann — averaging double figures in scoring, but when Amsterdam needs somebody to take charge, it’s usually Thompson. The senior put up 32 points when Amsterdam started the year with a win over 2022 Class A state runner-up New Hartford, and scored a school-record 50 last weekend in an overtime loss to last year’s Section II Class AA champ, Green Tech.
Damari Holder, 6-2, Sr., G, Schenectady: The Suburban Council’s third-leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, Holder is a 6-foot-2 senior guard holding things down for a Schenectady team that’s trying to find its place in the Suburban. He had a big holiday break, averaging 23.5 points in games against Liverpool and Bishop Grimes in Syracuse, and he scored 25 in wins over Columbia and Guilderland earlier this year.
Alex Schmidt, 6-1, G, Sr., Ichabod Crane: Schmidt, along with the since-graduated Brett Richards, were the key pieces in Ichabod Crane’s stunning run last year from No. 6 seed in the Section II Class B tournament to state champions. With double-double machine Richards gone, Schmidt is averaging 20.7 points per game for the Riders this season while filling up the rest of the stat sheet.
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Adam Shinder.