New-look Tallmadge boys basketball hopes to move up in American Conference

Michael Leonard
Kent Weeklies
Bexley's Chris Mitchell fouls Tallmadge's Ethan Taylor while battling for the ball during a game last season. Taylor is one of two returning starters for the Blue Devils.

Like many of us, Bill Johnson doesn’t know what the winter sports season will look like,

The third-year Tallmadge boys basketball coach does know that his program will take a day-by-day approach and he plans to use a bevy of athletes.

Tallmadge will miss a deep five-member graduating class from a unit that was 8-15.

However, the cupboard isn’t bare as there are some pieces and parts back for the Blue Devils.

Johnson is also very positive with regards to COVID-19 and all of the challenges it brings.

“We have approached this thing the same way since we were able to get back in the gym this summer - take everything one day at a time,” explained the coach. “Don't waste a day in the gym.”

“I think it is obvious, you can’t be certain about being in the gym tomorrow, so you have to make today count,” said Johnson. “With that being said, we also just try to control what we can control. We are excited to be in the gym and able to compete.”

The Blue Devil staff will look to be able to adjust quickly this season.

“We know there are going to be bumps along the way, but we can’t focus on that, we have to focus on the time we actually are in the gym and working to get better,” said Johnson. “Our guys have done a remarkable job of that and we are better for it.”

“Who knows what the season will actually look like with COVID – it could be choppy and all over the place, but I know one thing, no matter what, our guys will find a way to be ready,” added Johnson. “This group just has that mentality.”

Graduation did sting.

Wing Brandon Heigelmann was a big-time producer as he hit for 23.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.1 blocked shots a game.

Looking to continue playing at John Carroll, Heigelmann made first-team All-NEO District, was a Special Mention All-Ohio pick, and made all-league.

In addition, second-team all-league standout Danny Kurko, a 6-5 center, also graduated along with guard Luke Thomas (Wittenberg for baseball), Andrew Ayres (Heidelberg for baseball), and Evan Teeling.

“It won’t be easy replacing any of our seniors,” noted Johnson. “All five contributed and obviously, trying to replace a 1,000-point scorer is never easy. I appreciate the seniors and all the efforts they put in to make us a better program.”

Johnson has a combined 90-93 overall record as he coached the Tallmadge girls basketball team (2010-2014) and the Uniontown Lake girls (2016-2018).

The Blue Devils return a pair of starters in seniors Ethan Taylor and Nick Lambacher.

Taylor is a rising talent as the 6-foot-4, 205-pound wing will be one of the options to help ease the scoring losses of Heigelmann and Kurko.

In 2019, Taylor averaged 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists a game. He can also shoot from the 3-point arc.

“Ethan is going to play a big factor is what we do this season,” expressed Johnson. “He has increased his range and is shooting the ball very well from outside.”

Lambacher is a 5-11 guard who contributed 4.0 points, dished out 3.0 assists, and 2.0 boards a game. He can play both guard spots.

“Nick is moving from point guard to our wing this season,” declared Johnson. “This gives him the freedom to use his ability to get to the basket and create and score more. We like him in this spot.”

Other returnees who lettered include 6-0 junior guard Kyle Ries and 5-11 sophomore guard Ty Hurst.

Last winter, Ries added 5.0 points and 2.0 assists. He can shoot, defend and can help near the bucket.

“Kyle is ready to be a big contributor,” said Johnson. “He has the ability to attack the rim and shoot from outside. He has also become one of our best defenders.”

Hurst is a point guard who dished out 4.0 assists a game and added 4.0 points.

“Ty came on last year as a freshman and did a really nice job for us,” said the coach. “He has continued to improve and we expect big things from him from the point guard position.”

Tallmadge has a slew of newcomers, a few with some varsity experience, that will play major roles this season on what promises to be a deep bench.

According to Johnson, some of the top newcomers are sophomore Collin Dixon, junior Aaron Gergely, junior Mason Dexter, senior Caden Zajac, and senior Will Hudak.

Dixon is an exciting 6-1, 195-pound athlete who will make an immediate impact as a versatile wing player after coming from Akron Hoban.

“Collin is a Tallmadge kid who went to Hoban his freshman year and transferred back, and we are excited to have him,” issued Johnson. “He is a gifted athlete and can contribute in a variety of ways.”

“He (Dixon) can shoot it, handle it, and get to the basket,” Johnson went on. “We love his constant energy.”

Gergely and Dexter are guards who will also bring valuable intangibles to the player rotation as the Blue Devils’ lineup will likely change often this year.

A 6-4 guard, Gergely adds size and shooting to the backcourt and on the wing. His perimeter shooting will be a plus as another 3-point option.

“Aaron can flat out shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “He has done a nice job of expanding his game to make him really hard to guard. We think he can be a huge factor for us scoring the ball.”

Dexter gained valuable experience last year and is a speedy 5-8 guard who can defend.

“Mason got a few minutes here and there last season, and he is another guy that brings a lot to the floor,” Johnson noted. “He defends really well, can shoot it, and has a great motor.”

Zajac is a 5-10 guard while Hudak is a 6-3 post who lends much-needed size.

“Caden (Zajac) made huge strides this off-season,” Johnson stated. “He really continued to work on his game and is going to really help us. Caden has expanded his range and has a great ability to get to the basket.”

“Will (Hudak) is a tough kid with a lot of energy,” added Johnson. “He can really run the floor and get us some easy baskets.”

Using quickness to increase tempo, the Tallmadge bench should be active at the scorer’s table.

“We have a lot of kids and we plan to use them all,” said Johnson. “We feel that we have a bunch of guys that can contribute on both ends of the floor. We are going to try and get as many possessions as possible by speeding up the game and getting up a ton of shots.”

Other athletes who could see action are a trio of juniors in Caiden McCollough, Niko Roldan, and Carson Cowley.

“We are going to play 90 feet for as much of the game as possible,” said the coach. “We feel our strength is in our numbers and our ability to shoot the ball. We have made a conscious effort to find a way to get as many possessions and shots for our guys as possible with the style change.”

With a deep player rotation, Tallmadge will feature all-out effort due to fatigue likely not to come into play.

“We plan to really push it and to defend the length of the court,” Johnson noted. “To do this, we need all of the guys to have full effort, every possession. We have stressed to our guys just compete for as long as you can, as hard as you can and then your teammate is coming to relieve.”

“I think our guys have really bought into it and we are excited to see how it works,” he added. “We have completely rebuilt our offense and with the new defensive philosophy, it will be a work in progress, but the kids are really doing well with it. They come to practice every day ready to compete and get better, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Jon Karnuth is Johnson’s varsity assistant coach. Scott Campbell is the junior varsity mentor and Mike Srodawa heads the freshman unit.

“Additionally, Collin Epstein is helping us out this year a little behind the scenes and I call him our director of basketball operations,” mused Johnson.

The season opener is slated for Dec. 8 at home against Austintown Fitch as two league games have already been postponed.

Johnson admits the roster does have some varsity inexperience.

“Obviously, we are very inexperienced at the varsity level, but that doesn’t even bother me,” he said.

Last year, Tallmadge finished 4-8 in the loaded American Conference of the Suburban League.

The league is loaded again with defending champion Revere (11-1), a club that reached the district finals with a 21-4 mark.

There is also a 17-win Barberton unit that was 8-4 and has plenty of firepower back, along with a Copley squad that has good young talent after going 7-5 in 2019.

Kent Roosevelt and Medina Highland, both 5-7 last winter, look to improve along with high-scoring Aurora (2-10).

“I think Revere is obviously very good and Copley, Barberton and Highland return some key guys that make them tough outs,” revealed Johnson. “With that being said, the one thing I love of the SL is that on any given night anything can happen.”