If the Toledo Area Athletic Conference girls basketball coaches are accurate in their forecast this season, there will be a new champion to break the four-year reign of Ottawa Hills, which has also won eight of the last 12 TAAC crowns.
Expected to snap the Green Bears’ streak is Toledo Christian, which finished 15-7 overall and 12-2 in the TAAC last season.
Coach Tandy Bradford’s Eagles received seven of eight first-place votes and a total of 63 points in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll.
Ottawa Hills (19-3, 14-0 TAAC) got the other first-place nod, and coach Seam Mercer’s Bears finished second in the voting with 55 points. Cardinal Stritch (43 points) was tabbed for third.
“I’m a little surprised,” Bradford said, “because I know people have a lot of respect for Ottawa Hills and the program that Sean Mercer puts on the floor every year.
“But it also shows the respect for the work that we’re doing at Toledo Christian and the time and efforts that our girls are putting into the program.”
The Eagles return three starters with senior Mackenzie Harder and juniors Camille Gist and Darian Westmeyer, and they’re bolstered by the return of four other letter winners who contributed in 2011-12.
“I don’t think it puts any more pressure on them,” Bradford said of her players being picked to win the TAAC. “They want to be expected to win. They know that we expect them to be their best, and we want them to feel like that’s their goal — to be at the top and to win. It’s something they want to achieve.”
Until TC knocks off the Green Bears head-to-head on the court, however, Bradford realizes her Eagles cannot stake claim to any titles predicted on paper.
“Sean does a great job at Ottawa Hills,” Bradford said. “They’ve got a great point guard coming back, and the young kids coming into to that program are going to know the game of basketball.
“At the end of the day, we’re still going to have to play those games against them, and they have that championship mentality over there. We’ve got to get over that hump where they’ve owned the TAAC championship for a long time. We have to go in and play hard and [believe] that this is our year.”
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish.
Coach: Tandy Bradford, fourth season
Last season: 15-7 overall, 12-2 TAAC
Top players: Seniors Mackenzie Harder, 5-7, G; Hannah Wehrle, 5-8, F. Juniors Camille Gist, 5-8, G; Darian Westmeyer, 5-8, F; Lydia Yeager, 5-6, G.
Outlook: The Eagles were swept in TAAC play by Ottawa Hills last season, their only two conference losses. With three returning starters plus four other letter winners back, TC appears poised to take the next step in challenging for the conference crown.
The combination of Gist (13 points per game, 3 rebounds), Westmeyer (10 points, 7 rebounds) and Harder (7 points, 4 rebounds), is a big reason for TAAC coaches’ respect for the Eagles as the lead title contender.
Bradford likes her team’s mix of speed and player chemistry, but is concerned with the Eagles’ overall lack of size inside and depth.
"We are very excited about this season,” Bradford said. “The girls have been working hard on their individual skills to be a stronger and more committed team in achieving their goals.
“We know that every game will be a challenge, and we will have to be mentally and physically prepared to go harder then any one expects us to each night. I have a ton of respect for the work this group puts in to the team on and off the floor, and I know they have big goals for the season. So, we will work hard to achieve them all."
Coach: Sean Mercer, 12th season
Last season: 19-3, 14-0
Top players: Senior Sydney Hoffman, 5-8, F. Junior Gaby Guilliod, 5-8, G-F. Sophomores Allie Dewire, 5-5, G; Michelle Healy, 5-6, G; Foster Smith, 5-11, F-P.
Outlook: First and foremost, if the Green Bears are to continue their string of TAAC titles, they must offset the graduation loss of standouts Nancy Rumpf (16.7 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Caroline Arnos 11.2 points, 11.8 rebounds).
Dewire (7.9 points, 3.6 assists) at point guard is the lone returning starter, and will be counted on heavily by Mercer in that transition.
These Bears are the most inexperienced varsity unit during Mercer’s tenure, but are an athletic group with a strong upside. Finding new scoring sources is a concern, as is developing some post presence.
“We are excited about our future,” Mercer said. “We will be young and inexperienced, but we do have some talent that we are very excited about. Several of our players put in extra work this summer and we have new athletes in our program that will make us stronger.
“Our goals will be to work hard to improve every day, to be competitive every night, to battle for the league title, and to be playing our best as the state tournament begins.”
Coach: Terry Murnen, third season
Last season: 8-13, 8-6
Top players: Seniors Abby Mass, 5-6, G; Hannah Tucker, 5-5, G; Olivia Latz, 5-6, F. Junior Caty Rieker, 5-7, G. Sophomore Cecelia Gozdowski, 5-7, F.
Outlook: The Cardinals hope to stay in contention for the TAAC title behind returning starters Mass (14.1 points), who was a first-team all-conference pick last season, and Rieker (5 points). Coach Murnen likes his team’s chemistry, overall speed and work ethic, and sees more athleticism on the roster than in prior years. Stritch must overcome its lack of height and overall experience if it is to challenge Toledo Christian of Ottawa Hills.
“Our success will depend on how well our young players develop, our ability to play aggressive team defense, and a commitment to run the floor,” Murnen said.
Coach: Joe Fetzer, first season
Last season: 7-14, 7-7
Top players: Juniors Alyssa Almendinger, 5-6, G; Erin Lavelle, 5-8, F; Katie Almendinger, 5-4, G; Tori Wright, 5-10, F. Sophomore Megan Stephens, 5-8, F.
Outlook: The Lakers return four starters plus three other letter winners, and appear to have a shot at making a climb in the TAAC standings. Fetzer, who previously coached at Danbury from 1993-2003, will rely on his team’s speed, athleticism and attitude. The Lakers will need plenty of those pluses without senior Kelsey Clemons (12 points, 6 rebounds), who suffered an ACL injury in August. Alyssa Almendinger is returning from a knee injury for last season. Lavelle (9 points, 4 rebounds) and Wright (4 points, 5 rebounds) should provide leadership.
“We expect to be athletic and competitive,” Fetzer said. “To be successful, we need to stay injury-free and improve our shot selection and shooting percentage. If our kids continue to work hard and buy into our philosophy, I feel we will be a tough opponent for other teams in our conference.”
Coach: John Ernsthausen, second season
Last season: 4-17, 4-10
Top players: Senior Tana Baxter, 5-7, P. Juniors Marisa Alvarado, 5-6, W; Danielle Fork, 5-5, W. Sophomores Hannah Ernsthausen, 5-7, W; Lyndsey Perales, 5-5, G.
Outlook: The Golden Bears hope to improve on a disappointing 2011-12 season behind two returning starters plus four other letter winners. Baxter (5 points, 5.5 rebounds), Alvarado (4 points) and Perales (4.6 points) are the top scoring threats back. The Bears are quick and have some depth on the bench. But a lack of size may present rebounding issues, and overall experience is lacking.
“We are still young and inexperienced,: coach Ernsthausen said, “but we are working hard and improving every day. We look to be competitive and improve from game to game.”
Coach: Bill Hamilton, second season
Last season: 12-9, 9-5
Top players: Seniors Megan Raoch, 5-7, G; Kelly Sawmiller, 6-2, F; Katie Vancs, 5-5, G. Juniors Doma Cruz, 5-3, G; Ashley Buczko, 5-4, G.
Outlook: The Rangers return only one starter (Raoch, 4 points) and three other letter winners. Sawmiller (4 points, 3 rebounds) and Cruz (2 points) saw limited varsity time and look to take on bigger roles. Hamilton hopes his team’s work ethic and preparation for foes will serve the team well, and his chief concerns are inexperience and a need for improvement in fundamentals.
“So far this pre-season our girls are learning new roles and responsibilities from the top down,” Hamilton said. “Many of our players are excepting roles that they have never had, and they are working hard. As the season goes on we hope that our girls will appreciate all of the hard work they have put in to be successful in the end.”
Coach: Dennis Mussery, fourth season
Last season: 2-19, 2-12
Top players: Senior Miranda Vargas, 5-8, P. Junior Camy Lonsway, 5-5, G. Sophomores Kaylou Stoddard, 5-8, P; Kennedie Jackson, 5-4, G.
Outlook: The only place for the Hawks to go is up this season, and with three returning starters that is a possibility. Mussery is optimistic about his team’s speed, and improved depth. But an overall lack of size and experience are definite concerns.
“Last year we were saddled with multiple injuries,” Mussery said. “With a new system and a young team, we will be more competive. We believe that within the next two years we will climb the conference ladder.”
Coach: Kelly Harrington, second season
Last season: 3-16, 0-13
Top players: Senior Mylin Allen, 5-11, C. Juniors Chelsea Graham, 5-6, G; Lizzie Harrington, 5-4, G. Sophomores Cassidy Daniels, 5-3, G; Mackenzie McCauley, 5-10, F.
Outlook: The Warriors return all five starters plus one other letter winner, and hope to rise from the bottom of the TAAC standings. Allen (6, points, 8.5 rebounds) is expected to lead the way, helped by Graham (4.5 points, 3 assists) and Daniels (4 points).
Coach Harrington sees improvement in her team’s half-court defense, and in their willingness to work and push them themselves to get better. They will need to retain that work ethic to overcome a lack of height and their relative youth.
“With returning all five starters back from last year, and adding six new players to our team, I believe we will be competitive in the conference,” Harrington said. “Our younger players are growing and maturing into great leaders, and we are looking forward to showing a strong Emmanuel squad.”
Contact Steve Junga at email@example.com or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.