Findlay has been a competitive boys basketball program since the Three Rivers Athletic Conference was formed for the 2011 season.
But 15th-year coach Jim Rucki’s Trojans just happened to be included in a conference that had some blue-chip talent elsewhere and banged heads with some legitimate state powers in Whitmer, St. John’s Jesuit, and Central Catholic.
Entering the 2013-14 season, however, the talent landscape has changed significantly at those three schools, especially with the graduation of 2013 Ohio Mr. Basketball Marc Loving from St. John’s and All-Ohioan Nigel Hayes from Whitmer.
Suddenly, Findlay, with its four returning starters, appears to be the team to beat in the TRAC title chase.
The conference coaches saw it that way, anyway, picking the Trojans (15-9 overall, 9-5 TRAC in 2012-13) as the preseason favorite with six first-place votes and 59 voting points.
“I’m kind of surprised they picked us first,” Rucki said. “There’s a lot of good players in this league. I agree, the league doesn’t have those kind of marquee players this year, and we do have four starters back.
“But I still think there’s some pretty good players, and St. John’s does have quite a bit more size than what we have. Central’s got the best athlete and all-around player. We have to keep getting better. We didn’t have a great off season, so we’ll see if we’ve gotten better since then.”
Defending champion St. John’s (20-4, 13-1) got the other two first-place nods and was second in the voting with 55 points.
“This has been a really good league from a competition standpoint the first two years,” Rucki said. “There have been a tremendous amount of really good players, and the teams are prepared every night. You have to stay healthy because it’s such a grind.
“Having seniors helps. You can have talented underclassmen, but there’s just something different having seniors who have been through it before. We do have that, and we’re hoping that will help us out in the close games and the tough games and in the ups and downs you have with a season.”
Central Catholic was third at 52 points, and Whitmer was fourth at 39.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish.
Coach: Jim Rucki, 15th season
Last season: 15-9 overall, 9-5 TRAC
Top players: Seniors Austin Gutting, 6-3, F; Micahel Clark, 6-1, G; Adam Twining, 6-3, W; Braden Miller, 5-9, G. Junior Grant Niswander, 6-1, W. Sophomore Grant McKinniss, 6-1, W.
Outlook: The Trojans were the only team to beat champion St. John’s in a TRAC game last season, albeit with the Titans playing without Loving. They return four seniors who were starters last season, led by Gutting (16.2 points). Twining (11.2 points), Clark (8.7 points), and Miller (3.7 points) provide proven complementary scoring and court experience.
Rucki is confident that his team’s experience will be a plus, and looks at the Trojans’ collective basketball IQ as another strength. Findlay should also be a better perimeter shooting team this season, and expects better scoring balance.
Lacking great overall size, Rucki sees rebounding as a potential trouble spot, and one of his chief missions early on this season will be developing depth.
“We have four returning starters, but we did not have as good of an offseason as we hoped,” Rucki said. “We hope to get better as the season goes on.”
Coach: Ed Heintschel, 35th season
Last season: 20-4, 13-1
Top players: Seniors Parker Ernsthausen, 6-9, F-G; Trevor Walsh, 6-4, F; Matt Sasala, 6-8, F; Austin Moore, 6-1, G. Junior Anthony Glover, 6-1, G. Sophomore Gabe Kynard, 6-1, G.
Outlook: The Titans have a huge graduation void to fill with Loving, the school’s all-time scoring and rebounding leader, off to Ohio State, and point guard Austin Gardner now at the University of Findlay.
That rebuilding effort will begin with Glover (9.5 points) and Walsh (2.5 points, 2.9 rebounds), who return as starters. Ernsthausen and Sasala could provide dominant size, and Kynard (3.2 points) should step up to a significant scoring role in his second season on varsity.
Having lost 76 percent of its scoring from a year ago, St. John’s will need its seniors top step up and establish themselves as court leaders. Heintschel likes his team’s overall quickness, size, and depth.
“We play a very difficult schedule with unproven players,” Heintschel said. “The potential is there for a solid team, however, a lot will be expected of kids who have not yet been in that position.”
Coach: Jim Welling, sixth season
Last season: 19-6, 9-5
Top players: Seniors DeShone Kizer, 6-5, G; Nate Harris, 6-6, F; Tom Vetter, 6-3, F; Montrese Marshall, 5-10, G; Doug Biddle, 6-7, F; Juwan Grier, 5-7, G. Juniors Jermiah Braswell, 6-1, F; Marcus Winters, 6-1, G.
Outlook: Like most of the TRAC, the Irish suffered some key losses to graduation, for Central namely 6-5 wide-body post Keith Towbridge.
Kizer (10.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists) is in his fourth season on the varsity, having started during Central’s run to the Division I state final four in 2011, Harris (10 points, 8 rebounds) enters his third season on the varsity, and Vetter saw significant court time a year ago.
Welling hopes his crew can utilize its speed, athleticism, and bench depth in contending for a TRAC title and overcome an overall lack of experience. Chemistry must also develop among the new lineup combinations.
“There are lots of unknowns at this point,” Welling said. “We will know more now that the football playoffs are over for Central.”
Coach: Ryan Brown, first season
Last season: 18-6, 12-2
Top players: Seniors Chris Parker, 6-0, G; Jon Ashe, 6-3, G-F; Chris Boykin, 6-3, P; Tylor Schneider, 6-2, G. Junior Darius Harvey, 5-7, G. Sophomore Sam Hickey, 6-2, G.
Outlook: Like St. John’s, Whitmer also lost star players, with All-Ohioan Nigel Hayes now at Wisconsin and Ricardo Smith at Findlay. The Panthers also lost successful longtime head coach Bruce Smith, who retired for Washington Local and is now coaching at Southview.
Rookie coach Ryan Brown will rely heavily on guards Parker (6.0 points) and Ashe (8.0 points) for scoring punch early on, while the rest of the team settles into their new increased roles.
Brown likes his players’ willingness to listen and learn, and their eagerness to compete hard. Inexperience may prove to be too big of a hurdle to climb in competing for a TRAC title.
“Our team has the potential to have a successful season,” Brown said. “It’s crucial that we get solid play and great leadership from our seniors, due to the fact that we are inexperienced and have a young roster.”
Coach: Shawn Allen, seventh season
Last season: 7-16, 4-10
Top players: Seniors Brady Allen, 5-9, G; Justice Graham, 6-8, P. Sophomores Ruben Flowers, 6-4, P; Rico Stafford, 6-5, W; Jay Thomas, 6-2, G.
Outlook: The Spartans hope to make a climb in the standings with three returning starters plus four other letterwinners back. Stafford (8 points) and Flowers (7.5 points) are the top returning scorers. Coach Allen points to height and overall team speed as pluses, along with athleticism.
He hopes these elements make the Spartans a disruptive team, defensively. Some question marks on the perimeter and in the post will need to be answered.
“We have a lot of returning players, and we also have some new faces from our football team that will make an immediate impact,” Allen said. “We expect to be athletic and quick and look to improve our toughness to be successful.”
Coach: Mark Gedeon, 19th season
Last season: 14-9, 7-7
Top players: Seniors Jack Gedeon, 6-4, G; Dylan Jagodzinski, 6-4, P; Jarvis Jones, 6-5, P; Drew Solander, 6-3, F. Junior Grant McConnell, 6-2, W.
Outlook: The Little Giants floated in the middle of the pack last season and may not be able to bump up a notch this season with an inexperienced squad that returns just one full-time starter. Jack Gedeon (7.2 points, 6.7 rebounds) will be counted on for leadership. Jagodzinski (5.7 points, 3.4 rebounds) and Jones (6.0 points, 3.0 rebounds) also saw significant court time and add experience.
Post play should be a strength and will be needed to offset a loss of team speed and defensive pressure.
“We expect to again play extremely hard and play a team-oriented style of basketball,” coach Gedeon said. “We will need everyone to contribute in order to be successful on offense. The success of the team could depend on how quickly the juniors will adapt to the varsity competition and their roles on the team.”
Coach: Travis Lewis, second season
Last season: 4-20, 2-12
Top players: Seniors David Jones, 5-9, G; John Fankhauser, 6-5, F; Evan Wheeler, 6-6, F. Juniors Andy Okuley, 5-8, G; Josh Kruzal, 6-2, F; Lamar Carswell, 5-9, G.
Outlook: The Knights struggled the last two seasons, but look to improve this year after taking their lumps and spreading out the playing time to develop depth.
The Knights lack size overall and will need some consistent scoring sources to emerge. Energy of defense and rebounding should be a plus.
Carswell (5.7 points) is the top returning scorer, and he will need plenty of help if the Knights hope to make a climb in the TRAC.
“Our goals are to play hard and compete in every game,” Lewis said. “We will be fundamentally sound and play to the whistle. Our kids have had a great offseason and are bigger, faster and stronger. With this being the case, we will naturally improve on the court.”
Coach: Rob Belegrin, fifth season
Last season: 1-20, 0-14
Top players: Seniors Pat Booth, 6-1, G; Kyle Row, 6-2, G; Andrew McCrory, 5-8, G; Dillon Twining, 6-3, F; Anthony Ramirez, 6-2, F.
Outlook: There is only one direction for the Eagles to travel, and that’s up. Coming off a challenging season without a single win in league play, Clay hopes having three returning starters plus two other letterwinners will mean a more competitive situation on the court.
Booth (16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds) is one of the TRAC’s top scorers, and Row (4.3 points) and Ramirez (4 points) should increase their offensive production this season.
Belegrin is counting on solid guard play, and has a go-to guy in Booth. The Eagles lack size in the post, so rebounding and front-court defense may be a struggle.
“The key is to rebound and defend better than in the past,” Belegrin said. “We also need to establish another scorer to complement Pat Booth. This team is mentally tougher than we’ve been in a long time.”