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Members of the 2021-22 Union City Indians are (front, from left) Mya LaFuze, student manager; Connor Walser, Antoni Velasquez, Jace O’Conner, Colton Emrick and  student manager Leah English. (Back row) Coach Tom Byrum, Angel Nieto, Camden LaFuze, Donovan Shinaver, Coach Justin Daniels and Coach Brad Jessup.

Union City Basketball Preview

Union City made great strides toward the end of last season under veteran coach Tom Byrum. The Indians would fall to eventual sectional champ Seton Catholic in the tournament to finish 8-15, but leading up to that had won three of their past four games, including a 65-64 victory over a very good Lapel team.

In that sectional loss, the Indians might have challenged the Cardinals – in fact they led 10-3 early on – but they ran into severe foul trouble and it was too much to overcome. “It was a disheartening way for things to end,” reflects Byrum. “We were playing guys that hadn’t logged very many minutes all season long.”

Those eight wins might seem like a modest amount to some, but the Indians had been in a bad cycle, having won just 16 games total in the previous four years. Byrum, now in his ninth year as a head coach, had the Indians playing some good ball.

“We were playing some fantastic basketball. Everything was clicking,” says Byrum.

Of course all of that happened last year. This is a new year, and while Byrum would like for things to pick up where they left off, it’s not possible when you lose your top three scorers – one who scored more than 1,000 points (Zerrin Cantu) in his career, and another who was one of the state’s leading rebounders (Elijah Cowper).

Hunter Reagan (7.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg), one of the team’s steadiest performers, was also lost to graduation as is spark plug Hunter Clay.

While the cupboard is not completely bare, having to replace more than two-thirds of team’s statistics will be a challenge. And Byrum knows it.

“I’ll be completely honest. We’re young and we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But by the end of the year, we’re going to be a formidable opponent. We need to find a silver lining in every game and work hard to get better. Everybody is going to get better, but we need to work harder to get better than everyone else.”

It’s refreshing to hear a coach be brutally honest, but while Byrum isn’t running away from his team’s early deficiencies, he also knows there are some guys on the team who could blossom and lead the Indians to some success.

For example, senior Rylan Mote (6.6 ppg, 2.8 apg) scored in twin figures five times last season, including a big 16-point game in mid-February against Daleville. He’s also pretty good at distributing the ball.

Another senior, Antoni Velasquez (5.1 ppg) wasn’t a huge scorer last year. Few fans can forget the 33 points Velasquez exploded for in the Indians’ 90-22 win over Union in early January, and that is likely an anomaly, but the Indians will certainly look to the 5’9” senior to score more this season.

And then there’s 6’4” big fella, Camden LaFuze (6.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who improved dramatically last season and gives the Indians someone who can score and defend in the post.

Those three are a good start toward rebuilding, and Byrum will look to the trio for leadership as well as production.

There are some others who will need to step in and fill in the gaps. Returning with some varsity experience are sophomores Angel Nieto and Connor Walser. Freshmen Jace O’Connor, Donovan Shinaver and Colton Emrick will likely see some time as incoming freshmen.

“We’re pretty thin on the bench. We’ll have to use a lot of ball pressure, and when you’re playing so many young guys, you have to learn to play physical,” Byrum says. “But we have one goal, and that’s to get better every time out.”

The Indians opened Nov. 24 at South Adams, then travel to Wes-Del on Nov. 30 before hosting Randolph Southern for their home opener on Dec. 3.

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