Thursday, December 7, 2023

Independence eyes first conference title in 39 years

With three returning starters, Independence opens the 2021-2022 season with the hopes of winning its first conference title in 39 years.

The Blue Devils, who finished 14-10 overall and 8-4 in the Chagrin Valley Conference Metro Division last season, also have several others returning with varsity experience and third-year head coach Kyle Johnson is confident his players can get the job done.

“All five of our varsity starters have previous varsity experience, which is always important to start the basketball season,” Johnson said. “They will be playing a lot of minutes together as we bring along four players with no varsity experience in the rotation. We are still a work in progress getting the younger guys caught up with the speed and physicality at the varsity level, but our seniors have done a tremendous job leading by example.”

One of Independence’s biggest challenges will be to develop the newcomers at a pace fast enough to keep the Blue Devils in the hunt for the league title.

“I think the biggest challenge will be our depth,” Johnson said. “Besides our starting five, we will be really young with no varsity experience. The good news is they are very coachable and do whatever is asked of them.”

Independence’s upside lies in its talented starting lineup.

All five projected starters are seniors who have been tested over the past three seasons.

Leading the way is senior Kyle Zygmunt, a 6-foot-1 point guard who averaged 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and three steals per game last season on the way to earning first-team all-conference and all-district honors.

“Having a veteran do-it-all point guard like Kyle Zygmunt, who has started since his sophomore year, is always a luxury to have,” Johnson said. “We will need to rely on him heavily on both ends of the floor. Our strength will be the cohesiveness of our starting five. These guys have been playing together since they were in the youth program. They do a nice job of reading and reacting off one another on offense and defense.”

Zygmunt will be leaned on to quarterback the offense and settle the team down during those anxious moments that occur in nearly every game.

“Kyle is a special talent with a very high basketball IQ,” Johnson said. “Anytime you have a two-time first-team all-CVC player returning, especially at the point guard position, there is a level of comfort it brings to the head coach. His athleticism, court vision, and incredible ability to put the ball in the basket at all three levels make him difficult to defend one-on-one.”

Independence’s other returning starters are seniors Casey McGhee and Aidan Coljohn.

McGhee is a 5-foot-8 shooting guard. He averaged five points per game last season and shot 43-percent from behind the 3-point arc. He earned honorable mention All-CVC honors.

“Casey is our 3-point specialist,” Johnson said. “Casey has evolved into a multi-dimensional asset for us because of his great passing ability, high basketball IQ, and defense.”

Coljohn is a 6-foot-3 forward. He averaged seven points per game as a junior. He also earned honorable mention All-CVC honors.

“Aidan really broke out for us last year offensively,” Johnson said. “We are going to be counting on him to help carry the scoring load of this team with Kyle. He is unique for us because he has great touch from the outside, but can also battle down low in the post. Another kid with a high basketball IQ.”

Seniors Jack Taliaferro and Braden Flynn round out the projected starting lineup.

Taliaferro is a 5-foot-10 forward and Flynn is a 6-foot-6 center.

“Jack T is our Swiss army knife. He can play inside as a big or on the perimeter as a guard. Jack has an uncanny ability to always be in the right spot and make the extra pass. He has put in a ton of time in the offseason to work on his game and I’m excited to see that hard work pay off in the games,” Johnson said. “Braden has really grown into his body the past year and his improvement has been immense. He can alter so many shots with his length on the defensive end and has improved his 3-point shot. We are going to need him to play big on the glass this year.”

Providing the Blue Devils with depth are senior Michael Tommer, sophomores Landon Jatsek and Joey Jirmasek, and freshman Sam Crooks.

Tommer is a 6-foot-1 forward.

“Michael is a tremendous athlete with a very high motor,” Johnson said. “He brings a toughness and relentlessness to our team this year, especially on the defensive end of the floor.”

Jatsek is a 6-foot-3 forward, Jirmasek is a 5-foot-8 guard, and Crooks is a 5-foot-9 point guard.

“Landon was a big contributor to the JV team last year. He played a lot of basketball over the summer and keeps improving. Landon provides us with some length, and like Aidan, has the ability to play inside or out,” Johnson said. “Joey is a scrappy guard that plays with relentless energy. He is a great on-ball defender and has the ability to knock down open shots on the perimeter. What I’ve been most impressed with so far by Sam is he never seems overwhelmed. He is a heady player that picks things up very quickly, and as a freshman, that is very important. You can tell Sam put a lot of time in over the summer working on his game.”

Steve Hare
Steve Hare
Steve Hare is the Chagrin Valley Conference's Sports Information Director. He also created and publishes, an online publication dedicated to providing hyperlocal coverage to area high school athletic programs. Hare began covering high school sports for the Lake County News Herald in 1997. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.

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