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If early predications hold, the North Bay League title fight — for both the boys and the girls — will not be much of a fight at all. But all is not lost for area hoops fans; the real battle will be for second in both boys and girls competition and could prove to be the most exciting basketball of the season.

But first things first.

Ahead of the pack on the boys side are the Windsor Jaguars.

“Windsor is by far the best team in the league,” said Cardinal Newman head coach Tom Bonfigli. “All starters are back except one — they are definitely the class of the whole area.”

The Jags return three all-league players, including first-team pick Gabe Knight, who averaged close to a double-double last season.

In addition to Knight’s nearly 19 points and eight rebounds a game, Windsor expects big things from last year’s second-teamer, Brent Tucker, who averaged nearly nine points a game along with five rebounds. Fellow senior Parker Canady was an honorable mention selection last season on the merits of his 8 points per game and better than five rebounds.

On the girls’ side, last year’s league champ, Cardinal Newman, is just as loaded, if not more so.

This is a squad that ran roughshod over every league opponent last season, winning NBL games by an average of 39 points. And the bad news for opponents this season is that except for 2015 All-Empire Player of the Year Kylie Kiech, they nearly are all back.

That means foes will have to contend with the likes of forward Hailey Vice-Neat, a first team all-league pick last year as a sophomore who is averaging nearly 11 points per game this season as well as three assists, and last year’s freshman sensation, first-team pick Maiya Flores, who is averaging 12 points per game to go with her three assists. New to the mix is point guard Avery Cargill.

“She may be a freshman in terms of age, but in terms of maturity and basketball, she’s not a newcomer,” Cardinal Newman head coach Monica Mertle said of her new floor general.

Cargill is averaging 10 points per game and more than three assists.

Of the 11 players on Newman’s roster this season, six are either freshmen or sophomores.

“They have so many weapons they can throw at you,” Windsor head coach Jeff Paul said.

Star attractions aplenty

Windsor’s Knight, the only junior on last year’s all-league first-team roster, will lead the Jaguars on a number of fronts. The senior averaged 18.7 points per game for the Jags last season, in addition to eight rebounds, two assists and a steal. Tucker, the only junior on last year’s second-team roster, and Canady will be joined by Curtis Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior who is expected to have an impact.

Casa Grande could have a strong duo with last year’s second-team all-league guard Robbie Sheldon working with JJ Anderson, a 6-foot-6 senior coming off a strong season as the Gauchos’ quarterback.

And while there are some marquee names to see this season, there are also some big names whom basketball fans are likely to miss.

Newman will be without the services — at least in the early season — of returning All-Empire Player of the Year Connor Rubattino, who injured his knee during football season. His teammate and backcourt playmaker Damian Wallace is out for the season with a leg injury sustained playing football, Bonfigli said.

“Our two best scorers aren’t playing and guys that are role players and guys that would be third or fourth options are now first and second options,” he said.

On the girls side, there is firepower galore.

In addition to all of the weapons the Cardinals bring to bear, Santa Rosa will likely be all about Emily Codding. A 6-foot junior, Codding plays the point for the Panthers, but can do it all. She leads her team in every conceivable category besides turnovers in early preseason action: 17.8 points per game, 14.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists. 2.9 steals and 5.7 blocks.

Windsor will also bring some star power to the season if it can avoid falling into a sophomore slump. The Jags started three, sometimes four, freshmen last season but this year will be without the gifts of Jessica Barbosa, who is now playing at Texas-El Paso. Sophomores Gabby Giddings and Hannah May made all-league honorable mention last year and will be relied upon heavily if Paul’s squad is to make a run in league play.

New faces

The Casa Grande Gauchos will be playing for a new leader this season after longtime coach James Forni died in June following an eight-year battle with cancer. Jake Lee takes over for the Gauchos.

And after more than three decades, a new coach will be running the show for the Montgomery Vikings boys team. Although he’s not exactly new.

Zac Tiedeman, a Montgomery grad who in 2006 was named All-Empire Large School Player of the Year, was tapped to take over for Tom Fitchie, who retired after 31 seasons.

In Rohnert Park, Adam Green takes the reins at Rancho Cotate.

On the girls side, Santa Rosa has its third new varsity coach in three seasons: Luis Patrick, who moved up from the junior varsity squad to take over for Jim Gomes.

But the coaches aren’t the only new faces to look for. There are some players who might be unfamiliar to basketball fans now, but perhaps not by the end of the season.

The Windsor boys picked up 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Riley Smith, who transferred from Fort Bragg.

Windsor’s girls squad gained junior and first-team All-Sonoma County League transfer (from Analy) Valarie Viramontes, junior Samantha Baltazar, who played varsity basketball for Roseland University Prep as a freshman, and sophomore Cecillia Smith, who transferred from Fort Bragg.

Beware the troublemakers

Both the Montgomery boys and girls squads are poised to make trouble for a number of teams this seasons.

Vikings forward Joel Seitz and guard Lane Young are talented and can cause problems for opponents.

And Ukiah is a tough place to play no matter what — especially if you have to face Wildcats guards Nate Hale (13 points per game) and Ben Carter (9.4 points per game).

Santa Rosa has weapons and always packs a rowdy gym. The Panthers put up a 23-point lead on Analy — a fact that was not lost on Bonfigli.

“How good do you have to be to have Analy down by 23?” he said. “Santa Rosa has experience, a lot offensive firepower and they are really athletic. I think Santa Rosa is an extremely dangerous team.”

Maria Carrillo’s 14-man roster has six seniors and seven juniors so the Pumas should find someone to make up for the graduation of second-team all-league pick Clayton Andrews.

On the girls side, Rancho Cotate is a young team on the rise. Junior forward and captain Reilani Peleti was second-team all-league last season and sophomore post player Camille Spackman was honorable mention for coach Mario Newton.

The Ukiah girls, with their nine seniors including guard Cassidy Schutz, should give some squads a challenge, too. The Carrillo girls are also laden with upperclassmen — 10 of the Pumas’ 11-player roster are juniors and seniors.

And the Montgomery girls will surely cause trouble for opponents behind second-team all-league pick sophomore Shayla Newton.

“Montgomery plays well, like a team,” Windsor’s Paul said. “And they score. I think that is why you always look out for Montgomery.”

Don’t miss this one

With parity being the theme this year, there are few games to overlook.

But there are a couple of crucial matchups on the boys side, including the league opener between Newman and Montgomery at Cardinal Newman on Wednesday. And Santa Rosa travels to Windsor High on Friday for what could be a good contest.

On the girls side, Windsor heads to Montgomery on Feb. 5 and Newman plays at Santa Rosa on Feb. 9.

In Tuesday’s Sports: Sonoma County League.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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