A group of basketball players from four area high schools fought through injuries to win 86 percent of their games in a summer season that culminated in a first-place finish at a national tournament.
The Toledo Liberty won an American Youth Basketball Tour national tournament title last month in Bloomington, Ind. During the prep season, the 19 team members play for Bedford, Cardinal Stritch, Central Catholic, and St. Francis de Sales high schools.
Toledo Liberty coach George Berry, who is a varsity assistant at Bedford, said the team initially had 10 players but increased to 19 after injuries plagued the all-star team.
"We had a hard time holding it together, but it paid off," Berry said.
The Liberty finished with a 30-5 record and won the "highly skilled division" at the AYBT national tournament on July 25. The division consisted of 35 teams.
"We had quite a summer," Berry said. "They're a good bunch of kids."
Berry said he had coached 9 out of the 10 original members when he was an assistant at St. Francis.
But injuries to key players Kevin Bingle (St. Francis), Sam Bastian (Central), Chris Kantner (St. Francis) and Ryan Mallory (St. Francis) led to the addition of a number of players from Bedford.
Still, during its regular season, the Liberty chalked up win after win at various weekend tournaments where it played a minimum of five games.
At the national tournament, the team was guaranteed to play seven games. Those contests served as qualification games for the single-elimination tournament on the final day of the event.
Berry said the AYBT is not quite equal to the AAU level but it is "good competition."
"The teams we play are highly skilled varsity-level teams," he said.
According to its Web site, the American Youth Basketball Tour is a summer, grade-based, youth organization that holds events throughout the Midwest and East Coast called District Series Events. The events guarantee each team five games in a round robin format, and are held on weekends starting in May and finishing in mid-July.
The culmination of the summer events is four national tournaments.
The national tournaments offer an opportunity to play against teams from across several states, according to the AYBT. The division the Toledo-based team played in was the highly skilled varsity.
Due to its performance in the preliminary rounds, the Toledo team was placed in the highest division.
"We had an exceptionally good team," Berry said. "The other teams were trying to avoid playing us. In the end there were only three teams that were willing to play us."
In the semifinals, the Liberty defeated a team from London, Ont., 53-38. In the finals, the Toledo team beat a team based in Van Wert by a score of 50-48.
The Van Wert team had beaten the Liberty by one point earlier in the tournament.
"We just told them to win the last game of the summer season. That was all that mattered," Berry said.
In the finals, the players from Bedford scored 41 of the team's 50 points.
Berry said the two kids "that really made the difference" were two big men who recently graduated from Bedford High School.
Brian Champine, a 6-7 center, scored a team-high 26 points in the finals of the tournament.
"He's a shot blocker supreme who loves to dunk," Berry said.
Forward Jake Welsh, a 6-6 forward, scored 11 points in the final.
"He is worth the price of admission," Berry said.
"Those two kids absolutely leap out of the gym."
Both players made the all-Southeastern Conference first team last winter.
Champine will continue his career at Albion College in Michigan.
Welsh is considering walking on at the University of Toledo, according to Berry.
Another big man, 6-5 forward Sam Bastian, played a key role in the team winning 30 games.
Bastian, who was injured early on, played on the varsity as a freshman at Central Catholic last winter.
Garrett Petty, a 6-5 post player who will be a junior at Cardinal Stritch, also played a pivotal role in the Liberty's championship season.
"We were a very big team," Berry said. "We could have played AAU ball with this team. But that takes a lot of money."
Berry said he had taken teams to the same AYBT tournament on five previous occasions. But none ever won the event.
Most of them played together on two other summer teams that Berry coached. They went 17-1 two summers ago and were 27-9 last year.
"We started out with the same bunch of kids," he said. "But because of the injuries, we had to do so much juggling."
The injuries led to the key additions from Bedford, Central and Cardinal Stritch.
"The boys wanted to keep it going," Berry said.
He said the players recruited their friends to play on the summer team.
"We had an assortment of players," Berry said. "They made a bond. They stuck together."
Kevin Bingle, who led the City League in rebounding last season, brought his brother Brian to the Liberty.
Berry said the majority of the kids knew his system.
"They were familiar with what we did," he said. "We liked to get it up and down the floor and push the ball."
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