By The Telegram

A record-setting season for victories (23) and its best finish ever in the Class 2A state tournament (third) were the high-water marks for the Syracuse Bulldogs boys basketball team at the end of the 2008-2009 season.

What to do for an encore?

Well, with four starters returning, three others with plenty of playing time and a transfer with size, gives sixth-year coach Bill Peeper plenty to be optimistic about as this year gets ready to tip-off.

"Our program has enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years," Peeper said about a program with a of 136-26 since 2002. "We've got a solid group of players back but we will miss the leadership of Lucas Plunkett (6-2 senior forward who was a member of The Telegram's All-Area first team). He was a steadying player for us all season."

Peeper, though, has a pair of second-team all-area selections to build around in 6-3 senior forward Tate Housholder and 6-2 senior guard Drew Brown.

"They have a chance to be one of the best one-two punches we've had," Peeper said. "But as always, we will look for others to score and contribute in spreading the ball around."

Housholder, a southpaw, averaged 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and three assists per game while Brown was right behind with 12.3 points, five rebounds and four assists.

A pair of juniors also return to the starting lineup after solid sophomore seasons. That duo includes 5-11 Braeden Simon (8.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists) and 6-0 James Burkett (5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, two assists). Simon broke his arm in the first round of last year's state tournament but has fully recovered. Darren Simon, a cousin to Braden, is ticketed for the fifth starting spot after seeing plenty of minutes in a reserve role last season.

Four other juniors figure to see plenty of playing time as Peeper will build his depth around 6-1 forward Blake McAllister, 6-0 guard Latigo Peterson, 6-2 guard Dustin Sibley and 5-11 forward Jaime Garcia.

One player that will be a potential contributor as the season progresses is 6-4, 210-pound junior Casey DeVries, the younger brother of John who starred at Syracuse two years ago before the family moved to Washington state a year ago. They have now moved back and DeVries was one of the top football players for the Bulldogs this past fall. He did not compete in basketball the year the family lived in Washington.

"He's got good size and is a banger/rebounder type," Peeper said of DeVries. "He is strong and athletic, though, and could be a difference maker at some point due to his size and aggressiveness. At this point, it is hard to know how he will fit in or what his role will end up being for us."

In last year's state tournament in Manhattan, the Bulldogs got the first-round victory monkey off their back when they toppled Sacred Heart of Salina 60-50. The semifinal loss against eventual champion St. Marys went to overtime before the Bulldogs fell by just one, 63-62, and then bounced back to win the consolation game, 46-43, over Nemaha Valley.

"We got over some obstacles a year ago and we're looking forward to the season," Peeper said. "This is a good group of kids, they're working hard and want to succeed."

And it's not difficult to see what winning does to a program. The Bulldogs have qualified for the 2A state tourney five of the past six seasons and have been in the sub-state title game seven years running.

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Just past the mid-point of the 2008-2009 basketball season, the Syracuse Lady Bulldogs were rolling along with a 9-4 record, of which two losses were to eventual 3A state champion Southwestern Heights and another to highly-ranked Beaver, Okla. in the finals of the Rolla Showcase.

Then, junior Kamie Rash, a 5-5 point guard who had been averaging 17.5 points, five rebounds and four assists, went down with a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. And with it, so did much of the rest of the season as the Lady 'Dogs finished 12-10 and lost to Elkhart in the sub-state semifinals.

"I feel we can be very competitive this year," Lady Bulldogs coach Mark Akers said. "We were decimated by injuries and illness at the end of last season."

When Rash went down with the knee injury, the scoring burden was left to her frontcourt teammate, 5-9 forward Kylee Hedberg. Hedberg responded with 17.8 points a game and an area-high 14.3 rebounds per outing.

"We return a wealth of experience with a senior-laden team," Akers said. "We feel as if we have some unfinished business to attend to this year."

Senior guard Laci Nairn averaged 5.3 points a game and senior forward Shanelle Sharp added 4.9 points.

Akers will also be looking for contributions from letter winners Bryanna Graber, a senior guard, Dakota Gordanier, a senior forward, Kelly Darnell, a senior forward and Kelly Darnell, a senior center.

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Syracuse Bulldogs

Class: 2A

League: Hi-Plains

2008-2009 Record: 23-3, 9-1 (2nd)

Coach: Bill Peeper (6th year, 95-24, .798)

Overall (10th season, 143-65, .688)

Returning Starters: Drew Brown (6-2, Sr., G); James Burkett (6-0, Jr., G); Braeden Simon (5-11, Jr., G); Tate Housholder (6-3, Sr., F)

Other top returners: Darrin Simon (5-11, Sr., F); Blake McAllister (6-1, Jr., F); Latigo Peterson (6-0, Jr., G); Dustin Sibley (6-2, Jr., G); Jaime Garcia (5-11, Jr., F); Gary Parks (5-9, So., G); Casey DeVries (6-4, Jr., F)

Syracuse Lady Bulldogs

Class: 2A

League: Hi-Plains

2008-2009 Record: 12-10

Coach: Mark Akers

Returning Starters: Kylee Hedberg (5-9, Sr., F); Kamie Rash (5-5, Sr., G); Laci Nairn (5-6, Sr., G); Shanelle Sharp (5-8, Sr., F)

Returning Letter winners: Bryanna Graber (Sr.,G); Dakota Gordanier (Sr., F); Kelly Darnell (Sr., F); Rachel Gerard (Sr., C); Merista Newton (So., G); Jaycee Housholder (So., F); Shanelle Licon (Jr., G); Yazmin Ramos (Jr., G)

Top Newcomers: Albani Dowell (Jr., C); Darian Cashler (So., C)