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story.lead_photo.caption Eric Northweather is the lone returning starter for the Blair Oaks Falcons. Photo by Jason Strickland / News Tribune.

The Blair Oaks Falcons came one win away from their first state semifinal appearance since 2001 last season.

Only two players that played in that Class 3 quarterfinal loss to Springfield Catholic will step onto the court in today's season opener against Eldon in the first round of the Tri-County Conference Tournament at Versailles.

"It's a work in progress for sure," Blair Oaks coach Ryan Fick said. "Some of the older guys, they just have to be patient with the younger guys. Some of the concepts are new to them. The older guys have really taken on the role of helping the younger guys, kind of being coaches on the floor."

But it's never bad when one of the returning players is Eric Northweather, an all-state player last season.

"Great to build around him," Fick said of the 6-foot-9 senior.

And when the other returning player is his brother, Luke Northweather, a 6-9 sophomore.

"For their size they handle the ball really well," Fick said. "It's a really unique situation. I can't say in my career that I've had guys with the combination of size and athleticism, and really guard skills.

"They're two of my best shooters as well. It's a great luxury to have to know that really all five of those guys that are starting and then my first couple off the bench, all of them can really handle the ball if need be."

Starting at guard, the Falcons have sophomore Quinn Kusgen and junior Jake Closser. They'll be sharing duties running the point.

"I like to move Quinn off the ball," Fick said. "He's a really good catch-and-shoot guy. He's one of those guys when the ball goes up, you have a pretty good idea that it's going in."

Carson Prenger is a junior that could start at guard when a wrist injury heals.

In the meantime, senior Jacob Rademan will be in the starting lineup for the Falcons.

"We've got a group of guys that have played a lot of basketball," Fick said. "They play in the spring and summer, and they've got a lot of experience in that regard. I think that will translate for a quicker transition to varsity high school basketball."

Fick said he's not sure about the rest of the rotation.

Freshman guards Zach Henry and Dylan Hair will get an opportunity to come off the bench.

"Dylan handles the ball really well," Fick said. "He'll be a guy that we can bring off the bench and probably run a point position. Henry has the ability to to spot up depending on what the other team is doing defensively."

Giving some relief for the Northweathers will be 6-2 sophomore Gavin Brandes and 6-9 junior Justin Backes.

The Falcons want to be able to push the tempo, but Fick said they've put in a lot of work on half-court offense in case the opportunities to speed things up aren't there.

On defense, the competition for who gets the task of guarding the opposition's best player is ongoing.

"That is something that we are really been trying to get our guys as a collective is to have a little more pride on the defensive end of the floor," Fick said. "We're still trying to figure out who that guy is. I think Jacob Rademan is a guy right now that has started to show some signs of wanting to be that guy. Carson Prenger will be a guy like that. He's long, athletic, and he kind of has that hard-nosed mindset that I'm going to go out and try to lock somebody down."

Blair Oaks is the top seed in the conference tournament. Today's game against No. 8 seed Eldon is at 4 p.m.

After the tournament, the Falcons host Eugene next Tuesday, play Dec. 13 at Hickman, host Father Tolton on Dec. 17 and play Dec. 20 at Springfield Catholic before playing the Joe Machens Great 8 Classic on Dec. 27-29.

"The front half of our schedule is pretty loaded," Fick said. "It'll be a learning curve and we may take some bumps early while we try to get these guys that experience, but you truly want to be playing your best basketball at the end."

New to the schedule is a home game against St. Elizabeth, a Class 1 semifinalist last season, on Jan. 7.

"I think that's going to be a fun local basketball game," Fick said. "I think it's a game that benefits both programs, so why not play?'"

Blair Oaks was assigned to Class 3 District 9 with California, Eldon, Father Tolton, Fatima, South Callaway, Southern Boone and Versailles.

Blair Oaks defeated Father Tolton 56-44 to win the district championship last season.

"Probably half or more of the teams are going to be over .500 and probably in that 17-to-20 win range," Fick said. "Tolton has a team with pretty much everybody back from last year, so everybody's looking up at them."

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