Otsego ran the table in the Suburban Lakes League last season, posting a perfect 16-0 league mark en route to a 20-2 overall finish and the first boys basketball state ranking in school history.
The Knights lost two All-SLL players from that team with the graduation of guard Greg Asmus (first team) and forward Abe Rowe (second team), and starting point guard Nick Nicley has also graduated.
But it's what coach Larry Asmus has back - two starters plus a third standout player who missed the last half of last season because of academic ineligibility - that has SLL coaches pointing to Otsego as the favorite to repeat.
Seven of the league's eight coaches selected the Knights as No. 1 in a preseason poll, and Otsego received 62 out of a possible 64 voting points.
“We are excited about our potential but we realize that we will be a target of the other SLL teams,” coach Asmus said. “With that much experience back, the kids are expecting to win some games and hope they can win the SLL again. Hopefully, we can also make a better tournament run. That (second-round loss to Bryan) was a disappointment last year.”
This is a season of transition for the SLL, which has three new coaches - successful longtime Hopewell-Loudon girls coach Doug Reynolds, who returns to his alma mater at Elmwood in place of four-year Royal coach Tim Murray; Jeff Overmyer, who replaces 11-year Genoa coach Dan Dippman; and Tim Walsh, a Cardinal Stritch graduate who left Fayette to take over for 14-year Gibsonburg coach Keith Diebler, who is now at Fostoria.
Here is a look at the teams listed in their predicted order of finish:
COACH: Larry Asmus, seventh year
LAST SEASON: 20-2 overall, 16-0 in SLL
OUTLOOK: The Knights return five letter winners, including three starters from last year's banner season.
Back are seniors Seth Waits (6-5 C, 14.3 points per game), a first-team All-SLL player, Nick Neiderhouse (6-0 G, 11.9 ppg), Joel Summersett (6-4 C, 6.5 ppg), Pete Ferdig (5-10 G), and Nick Carroll (6-2 F, 12.1 ppg), who was ineligible last year after midseason and is perhaps the Knights' most athletic player.
Otsego is deep, has good size, and is quick. Asmus points to team defense as his top concern.
“To have the success we had last year, we'll have to play unselfish basketball,” Asmus said. “The players will have to put team goals ahead of individual accomplishments.”
COACH: Steve Stoller, 17th year
LAST SEASON: 12-10, 10-6
OUTLOOK: The Eagles return only one starter and have four players back with varsity experience. Overall size is a plus, and Stoller calls this year's depth his best ever. Optimistically, he can point to no glaring flaws.
Leading the way are the four returnees - senior Thurman Lawniczak (6-2 F), junior Ross Lingenfelder (6-1 F), and sophomores Brent Snyder (6-1 G, 8.9 ppg) and D.J. Michel (5-9 G).
“This should be an excellent and exciting season for us,” said Stoller (195-153 career), who is by far the dean of SLL coaches. The league's other seven coaches have a combined 12 years of prior service in the SLL. “I think we can challenge Otsego for the league title. We will be an up-tempo team that pressures opponents for 32 minutes.”
COACH: Greg Noftz, second year
LAST SEASON: 8-13, 7-9
OUTLOOK: The Flyers return four letter winners, including three starters who combined for 22 points per game last year. A perimeter-oriented team, Noftz sees the potential for good outside shooting. He also likes his team's athleticism, quickness and defensive ability. A lack of overall size may cause rebounding problems, however, and depth is questionable, especially in the post.
Back in the starting lineup are seniors Matt DeLauter (5-10 G, 8 ppg) and Greg Prymicz (6-2 F) and junior Scott Conley (6-0 G, 8 ppg). Senior Kirk Marchetto (6-4 C) should also contribute. Wes Blank, a 5-8 freshman guard, also figures in Noftz's plans.
“By far, Otsego is the best team in the league,” Noftz said, “but I think we can be in the top three without question.”
COACH: Doug Reynolds, first year
LAST SEASON: 17-7, 10-6
OUTLOOK: To graduation, the Royals lost three key players - Kyle Blachuta (17.8 ppg), Neil Bensman (9.7 ppg) and Scott Kromer (8.9 ppg) - from last year's Division III regional semifinal team. But seniors Brian Oestreich (6-1 G, 12.9 ppg), Craig Rothenbuhler (6-2 C), Scott Bateson (5-8 G) and Mike Lawson (5-8 G) will try to offset those losses.
The Royals should shoot well on the perimeter and have good team quickness. Those plusses need to make up for a lack of size and potential rebounding problems.
“Once our system is in place, probably by Christmas, we will be pretty good,” said Reynolds, who was 157-36 as Hopewell-Loudon's girls coach, including the 1999 state title with his daughter DiDi (now at Ohio State) leading the way. He still holds Elmwood's single-game scoring record (42 vs. Lakota, 1974). “Right now we are just learning to play an aggressive, quick-paced game.”
COACH: Don Christie, third year
LAST SEASON: 11-10, 11-5
OUTLOOK: Young and inexperienced is the label on the Wildcats with only one senior (6-0 forward Adam Hagen) and two other letter winners - juniors Scott Bergman (6-1 G, 10 ppg) and Dan Lieske (6-4 C, 7 ppg) - included on this year's varsity roster.
But Christie sees a very balanced team with good ball-handling skill, overall quickness and perimeter shooting ability.
“Our success will depend on the growth and maturity of our younger players,” Christie said.
COACH: Jeff Overmyer, first year
LAST SEASON: 9-13, 6-10
OUTLOOK: Overmyer's first season leading the Comets could be a challenging one, with just one starter and four total letter-winners returning.
Back are seniors Mark Haeft (5-8 G, 3.6 ppg), Steve Rymers (6-3 C) and Scott Ward (6-0 G), and junior Mark Belkofer (6-6 C). Junior post players Jeremy Diekman (6-7) and Brandon Imbery (6-3) add size to the roster.
The Comets have good quickness and depth, according to Overmyer, who sees perimeter shooting, rebounding and inexperience as trouble areas.
“The success of the team will depend on how quickly the players can adjust to the new system,” Overmyer said. “Over 85 per cent of the scoring and rebounding has been lost (to graduation).”
COACH: Tim Walsh, first year
LAST SEASON: 10-12, 7-9
OUTLOOK: Walsh inherits problems similar to Jeff Overmyer's at Genoa - new coach, new system, few returning players. Thus, his rookie campaign with the Golden Bears will be difficult.
Walsh is optimistic about the Bears' overall team speed and athleticism, however, and doesn't see a huge difference between his up-tempo style and that of former coach Keith Diebler. He does see a lack of size and varsity experience as problem areas.
Leading Gibsonburg will be senior Nick Walby (5-8 G, 6.6 ppg) and junior Aaron Kaseman (5-11 G, 6.4 ppg). The biggest loss will be replacing the 33.2 scoring average of Jeremiah Diebler, last year's Division IV state player of the year.
“Learning the new system has been difficult for the players, but they are adjusting well,” Walsh said. “The team has an excellent attitude and they work very hard.”
COACH: Norm Elchert, fourth year
LAST SEASON: 2-19, 1-15
OUTLOOK: Lakota has three starters back who accounted for 23 points per game, but overall they lack depth, size and experience.
On the flip side, Elchert likes his team's quickness and perimeter shooting and versatility.
Back are seniors Todd Schumm (6-2 F, 11 ppg) and A.J. Howe (5-9 G, 4 ppg), and junior Matt Graber (5-8 G, 8 ppg). Senior Josh Graber (6-0 C) and junior Jason Harmon (5-8 G) will also contribute.
“If they work as a team, good things are bound to happen,” Elchert said. “A lot will depend on how quickly the inexperienced players come together. We need to develop some depth.”