By Kyle Daubs

Even with powerhouse Teutopolis joining the Apollo Conference, nobody is ready to dethrone Mattoon just yet. 

Due to COVID-19, most seasons are going to feature a conference-only season. With no conference, the Apollo allowed Teutpolis to join, making the Apollo even more difficult to navigate. 

Most would consider T-Town the favorite after finishing 25-4 last season with a Sectional Championship and Elite 8 appearance. Their season was highlighted with a 43-29 win over 34-0 Paris, giving the No. 1 ranked team in Class 2A its first loss. 

Laurie Thompson, now entering her 16th season as head coach, would be the one to navigate unfamiliar waters. Thompson is 382-101 in her coaching career at T-Town, including a stretch of 11 straight Regional Champions. However, Thompson sees the returning top-two teams in the conference as the favorites. 

“We are rebuilding and have some inexperience,” said Thompson. “Apollo accepted us as a member this year due to Covid. We are extremely excited to finally be able to play basketball. I’d say Mattoon and Mt. Zion is the top contender.”

T-Town brings back only one returning starter in senior Lexie Niebrugge, who was the team’s leading scorer at 12.0 points per game. After that, the team lacks experience as junior Izzy Hardiek is the team’s second-leading returning scorer at 4.5 points per game. Sophomores Kaylee Niebrugge and Emily Konkel, as well as juniors Zoe Clemens and Grace Tegeler, should expect to see minutes early on. 

Even with a lack of experience, Charleston’s Jeff Miller believes that Teutpolis still deserves the respect as a favorite, right along with Mattoon and Effingham. 

“Teutopolis is right up there at No. 1 to me,” said Miller. “They are the teams to beat, but there’s plenty of competition in the league. Mattoon was perfect and brings a lot back. Jeff Schafer always put a good team together at Effingham. Mahomet-Seymour has a new coach and has a few girls back. I think they have a pretty good freshman class.” 

Mattoon returns four starting players, including two All-Apollo selections in Mallory Ramage and Delainey Bryant. Ramage, an All-State selection, averaged 21.6 points per game as a sophomore and has verbally committed to Loyola-Chicago. Bryant, an Illinois State softball recruit, averaged 10.5 points per game. 

The team also features guard Kylie Haacke, who has committed to run cross country and track at Eastern Illinois University, giving the team three Division I athletes but head coach Amanda Aydt was non-committed to giving Mattoon the edge. 

“We play in a tough conference,” said Aydt. “There are a lot of good teams in our conference, so I think there will be a lot of competitive basketball games.”

Outside of Mattoon, Mount Zion was the only other team with a winning record in the Apollo last season. Mount Zion finished 26-8 on the year and 10-2 in the conference but lost three main contributors from their team. 

That included First-Team All-Apollo forward Laine Wolter, who averaged 12.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 3.6 steals. Second-Team All-Apollo selection Emma Ewing, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, as well as Taylor Fox’s 9.4 points, are also gone. 

Lincoln lost First-Team All-Apollo center, 6-foot center Leah Schneider to graduation, as well as second-team selection Madelyn Koehler. Lincoln was third in the conference with a 6-6 record and was followed by Mahomet-Seymour, who returns junior Nichole Taylor, a Second-Team selection. Mahomet-Seymour was 18-14 overall last season and has a new coach for the first time in 20 years after Nathan Seal (296-266 overall) stepped down. 

Effingham had a rebuilding year with a 4-8 record in the conference and was 12-19 overall. With second-team All-Apollo sophomore Annie Frost leading the way, Jeff Schafer, now in his 23rd season with the Heats (421-228 overall) is hoping to get back to winning ways. 

That also includes Charleston, who features a strong starting lineup with seniors Shae Littleford, Katarina Blase and Hannah Buescher. Littleford, a former two-time all-state selection, missed 11 games last season but averaged 22.4 points per game. Buescher had been a starter on the 29-1 team in 2019 while Blase had not played since her freshman year, focusing instead on volleyball.

“From top to bottom, I’d say Apollo is back to being a pretty good conference,” said Miller. 

Taylorville, 2-10 in the Apollo and 5-25 overall, features a new coach in Hayden Eldred and returns their team MVP Haylee Sagle, who was a member of the Second-Team All-Apollo list last season. 

“I think you have to stay with last year’s Apollo Champs, Mattoon, as a top contender to defend their title with the return of Mallory Ramage,” said Eldred. “I think that many of the teams will most likely have new faces, however, and it may come down to which team can have a consistent roster throughout the season. I hope that every team can stay healthy with all their players available for the majority of the time, and it will be an exciting race.”

2019-2020 Apollo Conference Standings

  1. Mattoon 12-0 (27-6 overall)
  2. Mount Zion 10-2 (26-8)
  3. Lincoln 6-6 (14-18)
  4. Mahomet-Seymour (18-14)
  5. Effingham 4-8 (12-19)
  6. Charleston 3-9 (9-18)
  7. Taylorville 2-10 (5-25)

*Teutopolis, Independent, 25-9 overall