Everyone in the Midstate Conference is picking the Flanagan High School girls basketball team to repeat as league champions.
Everyone, that is, except Flanagan coach Jeff Sprouse.
"It's an honor to be picked that way. However, Ridgeview is still the team to beat," Sprouse said. "(Ridgeview coach) Mindy (Whitehouse) does an outstanding job with those kids. They're going to be a tough, tough team. Ridgeview in my opinion is head and shoulders above everybody else in the conference."
Whitehouse, whose Mustangs suffered a 53-42 loss to Flanagan in the Prairie Central Turkey Shootout, and El Paso-Gridley coach Linda Hocker beg to differ with Sprouse.
"Flanagan is very talented and very deep," Whitehouse said. "They are fast and athletic girls."
Said Hocker: "Flanagan has to be the heavy favorite. They're ranked 13th in the state for a reason. They're loaded. They have a strong starting five and they also have a strong bench. Ridgeview has a very solid ballclub and will be right there."
Flanagan is off to an 8-0 start behind senior guard Brittany Leonard, senior guard Kelsie Laughlin and sophomore forward Megan Laughlin. Leonard and the Laughlins, who are sisters, were first-team all-Midstate performers last year.
Leonard, who was also a first-team Pantagraph All-Area selection, is averaging 13 points and an eye-popping 8.5 assists. Kelsie Laughlin, a Southern Illinois volleyball recruit, also averages 13 points. Junior guard Amanda Bohn was an all-Midstate honorable mention choice.
"I wasn't sure what to expect because we didn't have a lot of (preseason) practice because of the success of our volleyball team, but we've played well," Sprouse said. "It's been a team effort, and that's what's going to drive us.
"The kids are really picking each other up, especially on defense, and we're sharing the ball really well. We don't worry about points and getting names in the paper. It's all about assists, playing defense and the final score."
Ridgeview (7-1) boasts 10 returning letterwinners, led by all-Midstate performers Mackenzie Roth and Sarah Hardman. Roth is a senior guard and team captain while Hardman, a junior forward, is a transfer from El Paso-Gridley. Junior guard Brianne Ghere received honorable mention on the all-Midstate team.
"All these girls have played at the varsity level since their sophomore year and some of them since their freshmen year," Whitehouse said. "We're nine deep and everyone can score. Game by game we're getting better defensively, but we're just not consistent overall. I have to have five girls on the court show up every night."
El Paso-Gridley has won three straight to hike its record to 5-3. The Titans are led by three-year starter Amanda Kowalski, a senior forward and All-Midstate choice last season when she averaged 16.0 points and 8.8 rebounds. Senior forward Kayla Barnard and junior guard Amber Fennell are also returning starters.
"We are experiencing some growing pains because we're mixing some experience with some youth," Hocker said. "We've been pretty sporadic at times, but it's early. With time we'll get better. We just need more games under our belt. As usual one of our goals is to challenge for the (conference) title."
Deer Creek-Mackinaw (5-3) is riding a three-game winning streak behind sophomore forward Ashli Silverthorn, a first-team all-Midstate selection last season. Junior guard Marybeth Schmidgall was an honorable mention choice.
"Flanagan, El Paso-Gridley and Ridgeview have really shown upper-class leadership in their programs, which is what we're trying to do with our program," said Dee-Mack coach Tony Riddle. "We're excited about this year and we're off to a good start.
"Our girls are responding well to what we're trying to coach and what we believe in. We're starting to take the first steps to turning the program around."
Other top returning players in the league include Heyworth senior guard Meghan Cleinmark, Heyworth sophomore center Laura Klawitter and Lexington senior guard Brandy Bird. Fieldcrest's Ron Kreiser is the league's only first-year coach.
Meanwhile, Tremont is not playing a varsity schedule this season because it doesn't have any seniors or juniors on the roster.
See Scoreboard for schedule, rosters