Prep Basketball

Monticello, North Linn seek boys' state basketball returns ... only in different classes

Part of the 2A field last season, North Linn has moved down to 1A and Monticello up to 3A

North Linn's Austin Hilmer (25) breaks around Boyden-Hull's Andrew Frick (3) heading for the hoop during the fourth quar
North Linn's Austin Hilmer (25) breaks around Boyden-Hull's Andrew Frick (3) heading for the hoop during the fourth quarter of their Class 2A state championship game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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The boys’ basketball season officially began Monday with some games around Iowa.

Here’s something we already know. Monticello and North Linn will not be qualifying for the state tournament again in Class 2A.

That’s guaranteed. Book it.

This is nothing COVID-19 related, not any indication whatsoever of the quality of their teams. They’ll both be really, really good.

It’s just that North Linn has dropped to 1A and Monticello elevated to 3A. So weird how these schools on the borderline that way not only didn’t stay in the same class but each went to a different one.

“We knew that the current sophomore class would probably put us on the edge. We had a lot of move-ins last fall. It just put us over,” said Monticello Coach Tim Lambert. “I guess you can approach it one of two ways. You can pout about it and get upset, or you can just take it on. I guess between that and COVID, we’ve just kind of told our kids to control what we can control. You can’t control the COVID thing to a degree. We can control being smart about it. And we certainly can’t control this 3A thing.”

“Last year, 2A was stacked,” said North Linn’s Austin Hilmer. “Now this year, I haven’t really looked much into 2A, but I know 1A is stacked. There are going to be a lot of good teams, it’s going to be very deep. Then it’ll be interesting to see our conference, because there are going to be a lot tougher teams than in the past. It’s just going to be an interesting year with everything going on and the competition that we’ll have to face night in and night out.”

Hilmer’s got a point, as Class 2A always is strong in Eastern Iowa, it’s a perennial thing. But 1A this season could really be something, especially in the Tri-Rivers Conference and specifically Linn County.

Springville went to state last season for the first time in 45 years and returns most of that team. Alburnett finished second in 1A at the 2019 state tourney and gets back one of the best players from that team, Hunter Caves, after a year off because of a knee injury.

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North Linn Coach Mike Hilmer mentioned how he thinks Tri-Rivers foes Edgewood-Colesburg and Easton Valley are among others that will be strong. Montezuma has placed at the 1A state tourney two years in a row, and Meskwaki could have its best team. Then there’s Wapsie Valley, last year’s 1A state champion.

The Lynx won’t be intimidated, though, that’s for sure. They won the 2A championship in 2019 and returned to the championship game last season despite the graduation loss of Mr. Basketball Jake Hilmer, seeing a 52-game overall win streak snapped by Boyden-Hull.

North Linn finished runner-up in 1A to Grand View Christian in 2018 and was third in 2017. Four of its five starters are back, the exception being first-team all-state forward Austin Miller.

“I think every year you have to re-prove yourself,” Mike Hilmer said. “That’s just kind of the way it is. I get tired of hearing people say ‘Well, you don’t play anybody’ and all that. I don’t think people realize our conference is going to be loaded again. I don’t know if you can (always) go over who you play, because most people don’t have control over who they play. It’s how you play that should matter.”

“When Jake left, a lot of people were probably thinking ‘Well, they could, but they’re probably not going to be that good again,’” Austin Hilmer said. “To get back to that final game, with the competition we were facing, and that dominating win against Treynor in the semifinal, I think we proved a lot. The confidence going into this season is going to be at an all-time high.”

Monticello also has a lot of confidence, as it should, with all five starters back in the fold from a team that gave the school its first state tourney qualifier in 60 years.

Forward Justin Recker was an all-stater last season and has continued to improve his game, Lambert saying some college is going to get “a steal.” The coach’s son, Luke, and nephew, Connor, also have tons of experience.

The other two starters are Ty Kehoe and Tate Petersen, who is just a sophomore.

“We all got better over the summer,” Luke Lambert said. “We put a lot of work into it. I think a lot of that is just playing together and maturing our games individually, just getting better ourselves. We also got more athletic and stronger, and I think playing football played a part of that. We just knew the challenge that’s ahead of us in 3A and knew we had to get our bodies better and our minds better and be ready for a big season.”

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The difficulty of 3A will definitely be, well, a difficulty for the Panthers. But it’s not one they can’t overcome.

“They knew it going into the summer, and they all worked really hard. They played AAU. I think they’ve all taken a step,” Tim Lambert said. “We’ve looked good in practice. They know the challenge in front of them, and they’ve done everything they can do to get ready for it. The kids have been great.”

“We’ve played AAU our whole lives against kids from all over, all over the state,” Luke Lambert said. “I think we’re ready for it, we can play with them. We’ve just got to come out with confidence and play our game.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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