Stacked with three ex-Division I starters and a 6-foot-8 banger from the Division II ranks, Parker Kelly still considered his Hoopfest team an unknown.
Before winning last year’s elite men’s 6-foot-and-over division, Lee & Hayes, a team featuring Kelly (Eastern Washington), Marc Axton (Eastern Washington), Mike Hart (Gonzaga) and Robert Lippman (Northwest Nazarene), hadn’t played in the tournament together.
In a division littered with ex-college stars, Kelly, who helped EWU reach the 2015 NCAA tournament, says a repeat will be an even tougher pursuit.
“There’s so many good teams and players, and there’s always going to be those teams you don’t see coming, like us last year,” said Kelly, who now sells business insurance at PayneWest.
“But we’re still hungry. After winning (an elite division championship), you want to win it again.”
Kelly scored 11 points in LeeHayes’ 20-15 win over Roots Academy – a team of former Northern Arizona University products – in last year’s title game at Nike Center Court. Axton, a 6-foot-7 swingman, hit a back-breaking two-pointer in the win.
Axton, now a 35-year-old hospital supplies salesman with Cardinal Health, was a three-time All-Big Sky conference selection at Eastern, where he helped the program reach its first NCAA tournament in 2004.
Hart started at wing at Gonzaga during its 2012-2013 season, when the Bulldogs earned their first No. 1 ranking. The 6-foot-6 forward was often dubbed the Bulldogs’ “glue guy” for his hustle and physicality, and was a versatile commodity in the Hoopfest title run.
Lippmann, 32, prepped at Northwest Christian and played at Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho. He’s been an elite division regular on multiple teams over the years, using his sizable frame and soft hands inside.
“We have a little bit of everything, really,” Axton said. “Parker can shoot it, Hart can hustle and get the easy basket and Robert is big inside and can hit his free throws. I can play a little inside and outside.
“Like any other Hoopfest, it’s going to come to down to a little bit of luck, because you’re not always going to hit your shots. Hopefully the conditioning is there and you can get through those first two games.
Roots Academy is back to avenge its championship loss, and Sky High, which features former Clarkston and Gonzaga standout Josh Heytvelt, also looks to dethrone Lee & Hayes.
The 6-foot-10 Heytfelt has teamed up with former University of Montana guard Shawn Stockton and former Whitworth guard Steve Stockton. Former University of Montana offensive lineman Brent Russum, a Lewiston product, is also on the squad.
“Roots Academy, theyll always give us a good game,” Kelly said. “And any team with Heytvelt is going to be good.”
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