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ROANOKE – It is shaping up to be a three-way race for the penthouse spot on the boys’ basketball side of the Tri-County Conference. There is Ottawa Marquette (20-10, 8-0), who swept the league regular season and tournament titles in 2016-17. Also in the mix is DePue (26-4), who finished one game behind the Crusaders and graduated just one senior. The other is Roanoke-Benson, who played DePue as tough as anyone a season ago, as the team split two meetings. The Rockets, who tied for fourth in the regular season standings, clipped the Little Giants 39-38 in a tourney semifinal.

“I would say DePue and Marquette,” forecasted R-B head coach Abe Zeller. “I think we’ll be able to compete with both of them. We just had DePue’s number last year. We definitely played them well.”

According to Zeller, OM graduated eight seniors, but will benefit from a junior class that was successful on the sophomore level.

R-B posted a 9-18 record last year, which ended with a 52-28 loss to Ridgeview (30-2) in the Mt. Pulaski Regional. First team TCC selection Kevin Ulrich (12 points per game) graduated, but R-B does return three starters, including its backcourt of juniors Jake Weber (10.6 ppg, 40 three-pointers) and Jarrett Bline. Another starter back is 6-foot-2 junior forward Jordan Huschen.

They’ll try to score more than a 42.3 ppg clip from a season ago.

“You always hope to put the ball in the basket,” commented Zeller, who is in his 10th season with a 128-125 record. “We have some guys with good experience back. I hope we’ll be better on the offensive end.”

The Rockets’ defense permitted 49.3 ppg.

“I do not know for sure what our identity will be,” Zeller said. “I think we have a team that can press more.”

Senior forward Nate Woodward will be in the starting five, while the third guard spot will go to junior Jett Weer or sophomore Jack Weber.

With no legitimate presence in the post, one area the Rockets could struggle in is on the glass.

“I would say rebounding could be a problem,” said Zeller, who does not a player over 6-2. “We’re going to have to rebound by committee. Some of that will be hard to tell until we play somebody.”

The schedule appears below (all non-tournament contests tip at 7:30 p.m. unless noted):

Wednesday: vs. Olympia, 5:30 p.m. in El Paso-Gridley Classic

Friday: vs. Hartsburg-Emden, 5:30 p.m. in EP-G Classic

Saturday: @ EP-G, 7 p.m. in EP-G Classic

Dec. 1: @ Eureka, 7 p.m.

Dec. 5: vs. Knox (Australia), 5 p.m.

Dec. 8: vs. Putnam County*

Dec. 12: vs. Peoria Heights

Dec. 15: vs. DePue*

Dec. 21: @ Princeville

Dec. 27-30: Williamsville tourney

Jan. 5: @ Peoria Christian,* 5 p.m.

Jan. 9: vs. Fieldcrest

Jan. 12: vs. Woodland*

Jan. 16: vs. Quest @ Peoria Woodruff

Jan. 19: @ Henry*

Jan. 22-26: TCC tourney @ Granville

Jan. 30: vs. Ridgeview

Feb. 2: vs. Lowpoint-Washburn*

Feb. 9: @ Midland*

Feb. 13: @ Flanagan-Cornell

Feb. 16: vs. OM*

Feb. 19-23: Regional

*-TCC contest

Notes: DePue and OM were the only two TCC squads that finished with a winning record last season. Knox replaces Kewanee Wethersfield on the schedule. The 26 wins posted by DePue were the most since they went 27-3 in the 1979-80 campaign. The league has three new coaches: Zack Essex (Midland), Harold Fay (Putnam County) and Connor Kaminke (Woodland). Essex, a 31-year-old West Frankfort native, was the head coach the past two seasons at Joppa-Maple Grove, located in the extreme southeast portion of the state near the Kentucky border and Ohio River. He had a 28-29 record. Fay played for Panthers’ teams in ’81 (Elite 8 qualifier) and ’82 (supersectional). The latter squad was 29-0 before they lost 69-62 to Maple Park Kaneland. His sons, Carlton, Kevin and Harold II, all played for the Panthers. Kaminke was elevated from assistant coach to take over for his father, Tom Kaminke.

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