Whether Bryan coach Tim Meister prefers to embrace it or shy away from it, the label of favorite has been firmly lodged on his Golden Bears in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League basketball race.
With four starters returning from last year's 15-8 team, which finished second in the league at 7-1 and reached the district semifinals, Bryan is the clear-cut choice of coaches.
The Bears received eight of nine first-place votes and earned 78 out of a possible 81 points in a preseason poll.
Last year's champion Wauseon (17-5, 8-0) was picked to finish second.
“We understand that people will look upon us with high expectations,” Meister said. “That's not a label we will shy away from. To be quite honest, I doubt anyone's expectations will exceed our own.
“The one characteristic about this group I really like is they are unaffected by outside influences. They understand the hard work that needs to be done between the lines. Other people's opinions are not going to change their work ethic.”
Here is a look at the teams listed in their predicted order of finish:
COACH: Tim Meister, sixth season
LAST SEASON: 15-8 overall, 7-1 in NWOAL
OUTLOOK: The old adage “loaded for bear” needs to be altered to “loaded with Bears” this season for Bryan.
The Golden Bears return four starters from a team that was a 56-49 road loss to Wauseon away from winning the NWOAL title, and a nail-biting 49-47 decision away from beating Van Wert in the the Division II district semifinals.
Back are seniors Travis Smith (6-1 G, 13.3 points per game, 4 rebounds) and Chris Manley (6-0 G, 7.5 ppg), and juniors Doug Carpenter (6-3 G, 12.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Nate Ward (6-4 F/C, 12.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Smith and Carpenter were first-team All-NWOAL last year, while Ward made the second team.
Also back are senior Nick Yoder (6-2 F) and juniors A.J. Manett (6-1 G/F) and Stewart Killgallon (6-1 F).
Meister likes his team's unselfish nature and their commitment to defense, but his greatest concern is the loss to graduation of point guard Blaise Core.
“The kids have taken pride in doing the little, dirty jobs which are important to playing good defense,” Meister said. “We may have to live with some mistakes due to inexperience (at point guard), but I'm very confident that the kids who play there will do well.”
COACH: Ken Burgei, 18th year
LAST SEASON: 17-5, 8-0
OUTLOOK: The Indians surprised the NWOAL last season by running the table in league play to win the title after being picked to finish third.
But this year's task of exceeding expectations will be distinctly greater with only two starters back.
Those returnees are seniors Aaron Weber (6-2 F, 13 ppg) and Clark Carroll (6-0 G, 13 ppg), who will get help from the three other senior letter-winners - Steve Hill (5-10 G), Josh Andrews (5-10 F) and Josh Reckner (6-0 C).
Wauseon's strengths include quickness, effort, attitude and defensive skill, according to Burgei, who sees a lack of size presenting potential rebounding problems.
“The league will be very balanced, yet Bryan is the favorite,” Burgei said. “Our non-league schedule is very tough, so we have a big challenge ahead of us.”
COACH: Dave Krauss, 17th year
LAST SEASON: 15-6, 6-2
OUTLOOK: Where Bryan has the most returning talent, the Patriots perhaps graduated the most. They lost 35.6 points per game in first-team all-leaguers Kent Creager and Eric Krauss, plus guards Jeff Kirkendall and Ryan Smith.
PH will rebuild around its lone fulltime returning senior starter Brent Punches (6-2 C, 5 ppg), who is coming off a football injury, plus seniors Mitch Westhoven (6-0 G) and Justin Prichard (6-3 C) and junior Jordan Badenhop (6-3 C).
The Patriots should be a strong defensive team, according to Krauss, who also sees good rebounding potential. The veteran coach, who led PH to a Division III state title in 1997 and a state runner-up finish in 1992, sees a need to develop scoring sources, reliable ball-handling and depth.
“We have high expectations from our group of returnees,” Kruass said. “We expect them to be our daily leaders.”
COACH: Jerry Keifer, eighth year
LAST SEASON: 15-7, 4-4
OUTLOOK: The Vikings established themselves as a consistent NWOAL contender four years ago, and should retain that status this year with five returning letter winners, including three starters.
Leading the way will be seniors Matt Mossing (6-3 F, 10.5 ppg) and Eric Simon (5-10 G, 4.3 ppg), junior Dan Stong (6-1 G, 10.5 ppg) and sophomore Doc Skeldon (5-9 G). Senior post player Jake Teal (6-5 C) adds size.
Evergreen is experienced and should shoot and rebound well, according to Keifer, who sees a lack of depth, inside scoring and leadership as possible trouble areas.
“I believe we can be a very competitive team in the NWOAL,” Keifer said.
COACH: Doug Krauss, 17th year
LAST SEASON: 9-13, 3-5
OUTLOOK: The Blue Streaks look to bounce back from a rare losing season behind five lettermen who saw extensive action last year.
Back are seniors Brian Meyer (6-2 G, 12.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Tony Stevens (6-0 F), Andrew Emch (6-2 C) and Jay Selgo (6-0 F, 5.5 ppg), and junior Jason Rose (6-2 F, 8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg).
Krauss points to experience, balanced offense and solid defense as strengths, and lists lack of depth, size and quickness as concerns along with inexperience at point guard.
“We have a lot of questions going into the season,” said Kruass.
COACH: Shane Ash, second year
LAST SEASON: 12-11, 3-5
OUTLOOK: Ash made huge strides in his rookie season last year, taking the Bulldogs from 2-20 the prior year to three games into the tournament last season, including an upset of state-ranked Liberty-Benton in the sectional finals.
With four letter winners returning, including three starters, he hopes the climb continues this year.
Back are seniors Chris Keesey (6-3 F/C, 14 ppg, 4 rpg), Eric Watts (6-3 F, 10 ppg) and Aaron Redd (6-2 F, 5 ppg), along with junior Mike Benton (5-11 G/F, 5 ppg). Brett McClure (5-11 G), a first-year varsity player, should also help.
The Bulldogs are experienced, run the floor well and play solid defense, according to Ash, who sees outside shooting and a lack of overall quickness and size as problems.
“We look to be competitive in the NWOAL with Bryan as the favorite,” Ash said. “How successful we are will depend on our defensive effort night in and night out.”
COACH: Dave Grim, sixth year
LAST SEASON: 12-11, 4-4
OUTLOOK: The Tigers are reasonably experienced, but as in most years are getting a late start due to the playoff success of the football team cutting into the transition time of those players switching to basketball. Liberty's first three games have been rescheduled to later dates.
Four letter-winners return, including seniors Joe Hamlin (6-5 C, 5 ppg, 5 rpg) and Nick Pieracini (6-0 G, 4.6 ppg), junior Tim Myers (6-2 G, 9 ppg) and sophomore Greg Badenhop (6-2 G, 6.8 ppg).
Liberty Center should show improved perimeter shooting and more balance on the inside, according to Grim, who sees a lack of quickness and bench depth as possible trouble areas.
“We should be better on offense,” Grim said. “We're looking to shoot a lot of 3s, and we'll depend on Joe Hamlin inside. If our younger players step up and meet the challenge we should be competitive.”
COACH: Jeremy Best, first year
LAST SEASON: 1-20, 0-8
OUTLOOK: The Panthers' prospects may be limited with only three letter-winners and one starter returning from last season.
Senior David Archibeque (5-7 G, 10.1 ppg) is the lone starter back, and seniors Joe Demaline (6-2 F, 6 ppg) and Addy Shindorf (6-0 F) will help in Delta's rebuilding effort.
Best sees physical strength and overall athleticism as bright spots, but points to a lack of depth and experience as flaws.
“We're looking forward to the season because we have many questions that will be answered as the season progresses,” Best said. “We want to establish a mental toughness by playing hard and competing intensely every night.”
COACH: Mark Huffman, third year
LAST SEASON: 7-14, 1-7
OUTLOOK: The Locomotives made a significant climb last year, after going 3-19 in Huffman's first season. With seven letter-winners back, including three starters, they look for another jump.
Back to lead the way are seniors Austin Saneholtz (6-1 F, 6 ppg) and Derick Lemmon (5-10 G, 9 ppg) and junior John Buldas (5-10 G, 5 ppg). Also contributing will be senior Nick Murray (5-10 G) and junior Ty Richmond (5-9 G).
The Locos' most obvious weakness is a lack of size. They must offset those deficiencies with quickness, depth and solid ball-handling.
“We try to look at the size as a strength and not let teams push us into a halfcourt game,” Huffman said. “We made good progress last year cutting down on turnovers, and hopefully we can continue that progress.”