Inside gymnasiums around Toledo over the past month, the City League's 10 head basketball coaches have been blowing whistles and barking orders to their troops, impatiently waiting for opening night.
Well, that time has come with the start of the season tomorrow night, and the chase is on.
If the City League coaches' consensus is accurate, the team everyone will be chasing is St. John's Jesuit, which is a near unanimous pick to replace Libbey as champion.
Nine of the league's coaches gave St. John's the first-place nod in a preseason poll, with Libbey taking the other top vote.
The Titans received 99 of a possible 100 voting points compared to 89 points for coach Leroy Bates's Cowboys, who were picked second. Scott (82 points) was picked third, and Central Catholic (62 points) was tabbed for the fourth and final CL playoff spot.
What makes St. John's such an obvious choice is that the Titans graduated only one senior from last year's 12-10 squad which gave Libbey a run for its money in the league playoffs and then the district title game.
Libbey posted an all-time CL-best 25-1 record and reached the Division I state semifinals.
The Titan senior last season was point guard Jamal Jarrett, whose court leadership and pressure ball handling will leave a significant void in the lineup.
“It's a tough league,” St. John's coach Ed Heintschel said. “Scott and Libbey are better than a lot of people think, and Central has a good, young team. I expected to be picked where we are because we have everybody back but one kid. But we still have a void at point guard that we have to fill.
“We have an awful lot of quality big people, and that's really good and it keeps things competitive in practice. No, we don't have any All-Ohio guys, but we have a lot of guys who can play, and that's a strength.”
The Titans bring back four starters, who all averaged in double figures scoring, plus five players who saw extensive action off the bench last season.
“With all the experience one would assume that would be valuable,” Heintschel said. “But it depends on how well the kids apply that this year. You never know. One thing I've learned in coaching is there are no guarantees. No one should assume anything. We could have won six or seven more games last year if we would have finished them off. There's no guarantee we'll be able to do that this year.”
Libbey, which defeated St. John's three times last season, lost All-Ohio forward Eyuless Palmer and second-team all-district guard Marques Fobbs to graduation, and senior post player Marlon Hooker to academic ineligibility. The Cowboys attempt to reload behind the league's best group of guards and some big but untested frontcourt players.
Scott, which also lost three times to Libbey last year, including in the CL title game in overtime and in the regional semifinals, graduated Robert Sanders (now at the University of Toledo) and lost senior DanJuan Witcher (transfer to Start), but brings back four key players from a competitive 15-8 team and has two junior transfers in Derrick Ford (6-8 post from Start) and Jason Lawson (5-10 guard from Bowsher) who should help the mix.
Here is a look at the teams listed in their predicted order of finish:
COACH: Ed Heintschel, 22nd year
LAST SEASON: 12-10 overall, 6-3 in CL
OUTLOOK: Heintschel has had some outstanding teams over the years, including two state runners-up (1993 and 1996), and he's had better individual players (ie: Shane Komives, Jay Larranaga, Denny Amrhein). But never has he been so deep in returning talent.
The list of returning starters begins with 6-0 junior guard John Floyd, who averaged 15 points per game last season and peaked at season's end. Next up are three sizeable seniors - Todd Thomas (6-4 F, 13 ppg, 6 rebounds), Ryan Taylor (6-4 G, 10 ppg) and Jake Beck (6-5 F, 10 ppg). Avin Curry, a 6-5 senior who contributed key play off the bench last year, will likely grab the fifth starting spot with Floyd taking over Jamal Jarrett's vacated point guard spot.
Adding critcal depth are seniors Nick Tosi (6-4) and Sam Anderson (6-0), and juniors Brandon Fields (6-4) and E.J. Johnson (6-2).
A key to St. John's success will be how well Floyd, a natural scorer at the off-guard position, adjusts to the duties at the point. Heintschel also sees a need to improve on rebounding and increase the intensity on defense.
If those three question marks are addressed, the Titans may become one of Ohio's top state-championship contenders. If not, they could fall victim to the same unrealized potential of their St. John's predecessors from the 1998-99 season, who returned all five starters from a CL championship team but bowed out in the district semifinals.
COACH: Leroy Bates, ninth year
LAST SEASON: 25-1, 9-0
OUTLOOK: The Cowboys lost plenty from their magical 1999-2000 team, but have four talented senior guards to build around for a repeat run at the CL crown.
Back are Jamaal Mays (5-10, 15.5 ppg) and Jonathan March (6-2), both key starters in Libbey's 25-1 season, Robert Allison (6-1), a major contributor last year off the bench, and transfer Danny Williams, a standout at Scott for two seasons before transferring last year to Storm King Prep School in New England, where he was MVP for a 20-0 team.
Bates, who likes this team's quickness, athleticism and aggressiveness, also has the services of several forward/post candidates, including seniors Andre Autman, Earl Grace and Derrick Reynolds, junior Dominique Turner and sophomore Rico Hester.
These players, who will need varsity court time to become effective, will help make up for the loss of would-be senior post player Marlon Hooker, who is academically ineligible, until at least midseason, and the graduation of All-Ohio forward Eyuless Palmer and second-team all-district guard Marques Fobbs.
“We know all the City League teams are going to be excited about playing us after last year,” Bates said, “and we're looking at it as a bull's-eye on our back. But we have to be able to defend our turf to have a respectable year.
“For us to be successful, we'd have to reach all the levels we reached last year - City champions, district champions, regional champions. This year we might be doing it with mirrors. We have some unproven talent, so it'll depend on how quickly we gel and mesh as a group. If we can win early, that'll set the tone.”
COACH: Earl Morris, third year
LAST SEASON: 15-8, 8-1
OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs have good quickness, are deep, have quality senior leadership, and play perhaps the best defense in the league. Although they lost senior DanJuan Witcher, who transferred to Start, they gained 6-8 junior Derrick Ford, who transferred from Start. He joins forces down low with 6-3 senior Brandon Foster, a physical force who arrived at Scott last year after transferring from Start.
But the guard position is where Scott is most dangerous with ultra-quick 5-5 senior Dennis Springs (10.8 ppg) and 5-8 senior Ryan Killough, an athletic penetrator and streak shooter. Senior Ernest Pace (6-2 F) also played a key role last year.
Morris's main concerns are rebounding, inside offense, overall outside shooting and how well his new additions blend in.
“We can go as far as we want to unless we get injured,” Morris said. “It also depends on how the new people adjust to our system. This is probably the deepest team I've had here. If the new kids come through, we could go a long way.
“Last year was real valuable for us because these kids have been there and know what we have to do to get back there. Our kids are ready to play.”
COACH: Mike Padgett, seventh year
LAST SEASON: 7-13, 2-7
OUTLOOK: The Irish should bounce back from an off-year behind three returning starters plus two others with significant varsity time logged last year.
Back as starters are senior Andre Gould (6-4 C, 5 ppg) and juniors John Thomas (6-1 G, 8.5 ppg) and Andy Mix (6-5 G, 5.1 ppg), plus junior letter winners Brandon Woods (6-6 F) and Manga Shuman (6-2 F).
Central should feature improved quickness, depth and defensive ability, but rebounding is a question mark.
“We should improve on last year's record and challenge for a spot in the city playoffs,” Padgett said. “It's going to take consistent play. If our play becomes consistently good, night in and night out, we have a chance to be in the playoff mix.”
Adding size to Central's cause are senior Ryan Jewell (6-10), juniors Brandon Woods (6-6) and Ben Harman (6-4), and sophomore Norman Mars (6-4), although their composite playing time may be limited. Senior Chris Ireland (6-1 G), a transfer who saw limited playing time at Libbey, may also contribute.
COACH: Joe Suboticki, sixth year
LAST SEASON: 16-5, 6-3
OUTLOOK: No league team was hurt more severely by graduation than the Knights, who lost eight seniors, including the talented trio of P.J. Behan, Bill Bingle and Jason Smolenski, who combined for 41 points and 23 rebounds per game.
St. Francis must build around its only two varsity returnees - 6-3 junior Tom Donovan (6.5 ppg) and 6-2 senior David Brownlee (5 ppg). Sophomore guards Joe Franks (5-9) and Anthony Miracola (5-51/2) have shown promise in the backcourt, and 6-4 senior Max Bastian adds size to the inexperienced lineup.
Suboticki has seen improvement defensively in his young team, who should shoot well from the perimeter. But inexperience, lack of size and probable rebounding problems may hinder the Knights' chances.
“We'll have to shoot well if we're going to win,” Suboticki said. “This is the least experienced team I've had since I returned here. We had a very good class of seniors last year, and that's the price you pay.
“Our style will have to change a little bit, but I'd like to think we always have a chance at competing (for CL playoffs). If we play hard and play good defense, we'll have a shot.”
COACH: Dave Pitsenbarger, third year
LAST SEASON: 9-11, 2-7
OUTLOOK: The Indians graduated their top player in Darryl Lyons (14.1 ppg), but have two full-time and two part-time starters returning.
Back are seniors Tarell Baldwin, a 6-5, 325-pound post player (8.1 ppg, 6 rpg), and Willie Brown, a 6-0 forward. Senior Terron Hereford (6-3 F, 8-4 ppg) and junior Jamell “Kevin” Baldwin (6-2 G, 7.5 ppg) will no longer have to share a starting spot. Waite's point guard of last season, senior Rodney Clark, transferred to Libbey.
This Tribe team has the most returning experience during Pitsenbarger's tenure, is strong inside, quick on the perimeter, and should have improved outside shooting. Decision-making and patience in shot selection are major question marks.
“We have the necessary players to have a successful season,” Pitsenbarger said. “We're good and quick defensively, have some outside threats and we have some depth. Without injuries, we should be competitive in the league.”
COACH: Charles Gibson, third year
LAST SEASON: 4-16, 1-8
OUTLOOK: The Rams utilized more players on their roster than any other CL team last year, and Gibson is hoping that wide range of experience will pay off this season.
Leading the way for Rogers will be seniors David Short (6-4 G/W, 9 ppg) and Verdis Chears (6-0 G), and juniors Dominique Harrison (6-2 W, 6 ppg), Eric Jones (6-3 F) and Harvey Ridley (6-7 C), a transfer from Maumee Valley Country Day School.
Rogers has speed, experience and depth, and should be improved shooting and passing. Overall size is average, and Gibson sees a need for rebounding by committee.
“With the momentum the (CL champion) football team brought to the school, the expectations are high,” Gibson said. “I think we're going to be able to compete with their accomplishments. A lot of people got to see themselves on the floor last year in game situations, so that'll help.”
COACH: Bob Brown, first year
LAST SEASON: 10-9, 5-4
OUTLOOK: The Spartans feature good senior leadership, improved quickness and ball-handling ability, and should be more physical than last year, according to Brown, who points to a lack of size and depth as trouble spots. Perimeter shooting and rebounding are average.
Leading Start will be seniors Kent Smith (6-6 F, 8.2 ppg), Daryl Gaston (5-10 G), Earl Vassel (5-8 G), Dominic Poellnitz (6-2 F) and DanJuan Witcher (5-11 G), a transfer from Scott and a proven talent.
“The key will be if we gel,” said Brown, who takes over for Gil Guerrero after five years as an assistant. “If we do, we've got a chance to be pretty decent.
“If we play together, we have a chance to surprise some people.”
COACH: Paul Brzozka, sixth year
LAST SEASON: 5-15, 2-7
OUTLOOK: The Polar Bears suffered key losses with the graduation of guard Shawn Hines (20.3 ppg) and forward Bryan Wilson (11.8 ppg), and returning 6-1 senior forward Damon Perkins (10.8 ppg) is a question mark. He broke his leg in a game against Libbey last season, and rebroke the same leg during the summer.
Woodward has good depth, and Brzozka sees this leading to a more competitive team on the floor. A lack of physical strength and size, plus a shortage of experience may hinder the Bears.
Leading the way will be Perkins, if he's healthy, and seniors Justin Miller (6-3 F, 6.4 ppg) and Greg Cannon (6-5 C, 5.2 ppg). Seniors Lamont Walker (5-9 G) and Joe Jones (5-9 G) will also contribute.
“If we have a good December, I think that will help our confidence for the meat of the City League schedule,” Brzozka said. “We could be 5-0 or 0-5 after our first five games, depending on how we play. How aggressive we are and how well we play defense will be the keys for us.”
COACH: Mark Malinowski, second year
LAST SEASON: 12-9, 4-5
OUTLOOK: Malinowski opens his second campaign suffering a triple blow. He lost All-Ohio player Keith Triplett (24.4 ppg, 10.3 rpg) to graduation and promising would-be junior returnee Darrell Jenkins (6-0 G) to academic ineligibility, which has also taken the potential post threat of 6-8 junior transfer Reggie Jones from Perrysburg.
The Rebels will regroup around senior Jamaal Jones (6-2 G/F), juniors Mike Menchaca (5-10 G, 6-8 ppg), Jeff Hartwig (5-10 G) and Ozzie Williams (6-1 F), and sophomore Marcus Taylor (6-1 F).
Bowsher should be good on the perimeter, has decent team speed, and possesses quality team chemistry, according to Malinowski, whose troops must overcome a lack of size, depth and experience.
“Five of our top returning players are not with us due to transfers and eligibility,” Malinowski said. “The kids we have are working hard. The keys to success for us include shooting well, defensive rebounding and staying healthy.”