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They may be the defending state champions, but the Melba girls basketball team still faces a tough challenger heading into this season.

The Mustangs find themselves tied with defending conference champion Cole Valley Christian for the top spot for preseason favorites in the Western Idaho Conference, as voted by four coaches. A fifth coach simply listed Cole Valley as the favorite, but didn’t vote for other teams, so their vote was thrown out.

As a result, the Mustangs and Chargers finished tied in points. Cole Valley ran through an unbeaten conference slate last year, then won the district title by beating Melba in the championship game. But the Chargers were beaten by Grangeville in the first round of the tournament. Melba, meanwhile, went on to win the crown.

Both teams have already picked up wins against preseason 3A Snake River Valley favorite Parma, so it looks like it could be just as competitive of a race as the poll numbers make it out to be. It isn’t just the top spot where there’s competition, either.

Third-place New Plymouth was one vote ahead of Nampa Christian, while Ambrose beat out Marsing by one point for fifth-place in the poll.

How will the WIC shake up when all is said and done?

Schools are presented in order of which they finished in a poll of conference coaches.

COLE VALLEY CHRISTIAN CHARGERS

COACH: Matt Beglinger, 2nd season

LAST YEAR: 17-3

STATE PLAYOFFS: Lost in consolation semifinals

KEY PLAYERS: Ellie Fraas, G/F, sr.; Lyndsie Krogh G/F, sr.; Julee Caven, G, sr.

NOTES: With the loss of Desirae Kingery and Anna Veeck, Belinger says he expects the team to be more guard heavy this season, with a quick offense that will look to push the pace a little more. Fraas was a first-team all-conference selection last season, while Krogh was a second-team pick. Cavens missed half of last season with a broken wrist, but Belinger said she put a lot of work in the gym and has worked her way into a starting role.

MELBA MUSTANGS (TIED WITH COLE VALLEY CHRISTIAN)

COACH: David Lenz, 6th season

LAST YEAR: 22-4

STATE PLAYOFFS: Won 2A state championship

KEY PLAYERS: Kendall Clark, jr.; Keylee Wilson, jr.; Hallie Arnold, jr.

NOTES: Melba loses two-time WIC Player of the Year Kate Clark, but the Mustangs return four starters, all of whom were underclassmen and all who earned all-conference honors.

However, Kendall Clark, the younger sister of Kate, will miss the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery. The younger Clark is being recruited by Northwest Nazarene, where Kate and older sister Emma play, but she’s also been getting looks from NCAA Division I schools Washington State and Montana State.

Both Kendall Clark and Wilson were first-team selections as sophomores. Kendall Arnold was a second-team all-conference selection a year ago, while sophomore Brooklynn Dayley was an honorable mention.

Lenz will also have a group of five seniors, leading to a lot of competition for the five spots on the floor.

NEW PLYMOUTH PILGRIMS

COACH: Denise Oliver

LAST YEAR: 18-7

STATE PLAYOFFS: Won third-place game

KEY PLAYERS: None provided by coach

NOTES: New Plymouth loses Alyssa Christensen, who was the conference co-player of the year last season. Oliver did not respond to a survey asking for more information.

NAMPA CHRISTIAN TROJANS

COACH: Rebecca Wilson, 2nd season

LAST YEAR: 7-12

STATE PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

KEY PLAYERS: Olivia Irwin, F, sr.; Sophia Ganino, G, jr.

NOTES: Last year is a year that Wilson describes as a rebuilding year. But with four seniors returning who led the Trojans in points, steals or rebounds in at least one game last season, the coach is hoping the experience pays off. Wilson added that Nampa Christian has some young players who have been pushing the veterans during the offseason, some of whom might surprise people with big years this season.

AMBROSE ARCHERS

COACH: Jordan Tucker, 4th season

LAST YEAR: 2-17

STATE PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

KEY PLAYERS: Emma Ford, G, sr.; Faith Endebrock, G, jr.; Ellie Thome, G, fr.

NOTES: Tucker returns to the Archers’ bench after taking a two-year hiatus. Ambrose returns its core group from last year, including all five starters, which Tucker says puts them in position to be significantly improved. Endebrock was an all-conference honorable mention last season.

MARSING HUSKIES

COACH: Mike Swanson

LAST YEAR: 2-15

STATE PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

KEY PLAYERS: None provided by coach

NOTES: Swanson did not respond to a survey asking for information.

COMPASS CHARTER AVIATORS

COACH: Richard Malm, 5th season

LAST YEAR: 3-17

STATE PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify.

KEY PLAYERS: Elise Folk, sr.

NOTES: Led by Folk, the lone senior, and a junior class Malm says is talented, the Aviators look to build on last year’s work and make a name for themselves in the 2A classification.

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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