As he evaluated his team before the 1999-2000 basketball season, Libbey coach Leroy Bates had a feeling his Cowboys had the potential for a great run.
Bates' hunch panned out perfectly as the Cowboys posted a 20-0 regular season, a No. 1 ranking in the final Associated Press state poll, captured the school's first City championship in 30 years, and reached the Division I state semifinals before finishing 25-1.
After experiencing some away-from-the-court hits (injuries and defections) to his program in recent seasons, the 14th-year Libbey coach fully realizes that nothing can be taken for granted.
But City League rivals know that Bates is approaching this season with optimism similar to what he had seven years ago.
Libbey was the unanimous choice of the CL's 12 coaches to win the City championship, receiving the maximum possible 144 voting points.
The confidence in the Cowboys - from Bates and the other 11 CL coaches - centers on superbly talented 6-4 junior guard-forward William Buford and classmates Julius Wells and Brad Sandridge.
All five starters plus one other letter winner return from a Cowboys' team that finished 12-9 overall and lost to Scott in the CL playoff semifinals.
More importantly, perhaps, was the baptism by fire that Libbey's youthful crew got by playing what was arguably Ohio's most difficult schedule in 2005-06.
Buford, who has already accepted a scholarship offer from Ohio State University coach Thad Matta, was the Blade player of the year as a sophomore as well as City League co-player of the year and second-team All-Ohio in Division I.
Before he is finished at the prep level, he will likely be considered among the handful of all-time great City League products.
"If you get these guys believing like [the 1999-2000 team], then it could be a special thing," Bates said. "But, remember, injuries and any number of outside situations could evaporate all those kinds of dreams.
"I'm happy for where we are right now, and hopefully it'll last until March. We feel the bull's-eye is on our backs, but that doesn't mean that we're not supposed to come out and compete every game. Everybody's going to play us hard. They've done that ever since I've been coaching here."
St. John's - which had its string of four straight City playoff titles snapped last season in a 56-51 double-overtime loss to Scott in the championship game - was picked second with 122 points.
The Titans (21-6) would later avenge that loss, and one from the 2005 Division I district final, by beating the Bulldogs 74-59 in the district title game last March.
On a roll, St. John's then advanced to the D-I state semifinals before losing to eventual repeat state champion Canton McKinley. It was the third appearance at state for Ed Heintschel's Titans in four seasons and St. John's fifth trip to state overall under the City League's all-time winningest coach.
Defending City champion Scott (21-2), which is 40-7 overall in two seasons under highly-successful and much-traveled coach Joe Suboticki, was tabbed for third in the voting at 111 points, and a greatly improved Start team was picked for fourth at 109.
Central Catholic and St. Francis de Sales were voted fifth and sixth, respectively.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Leroy Bates, 14th year
Last season: 12-9, 8-3 CL
Top players: Seniors Generio Kizer, 6-4, F; James Arnold, 5-10, G. Juniors William Buford, 6-4, G-F; Julius Wells, 6-5, F; Brad Sandridge, 6-3, G; Brad Burton, 6-2, G.
Outlook: The sky is the limit for the battle-tested Cowboys, who return five starters including the CL's top player in Buford (22.7 points, 10.9 rebounds). Wells (10 points, 7.4 rebounds) and Sandridge (7.2 points, 5.6 rebounds) add solid alternative threats for foes who wish to send gimmick defenses at Buford.
Bates sees improved perimeter shooting and rebounding, and likes his team's size, speed, unselfish play and overall confidence. His main concern with so many talented individuals is maintaining a team focus.
"This team will be highly competitive," Bates said. "They have matured greatly from last year's tough schedule."
Coach: Ed Heintschel, 28th year
Last season: 21-6, 9-2
Top players: Seniors Joe Jakubowski, 6-1, G; Sean Patterson, 6-3, W; Brian Morrison, 6-5, F. Juniors Bob Utrup, 6-9, C; Andrew Schaetzke, 6-3, C. Sophomore Michael Taylor, 6-2, G.
Outlook: The Titans graduated some key personnel in All-City first-teamer Jonathan Dunn (19.1 points) and CL second-teamer Andrew Taylor (12 points, 7 rebounds), along with solid guards Mike Floyd and DeAndre Ware.
But the Rice University-bound Jakubowski (10 points), the lone returning starter, leads a promising backcourt along with Taylor, who is arguably the CL's top sophomore player. Utrup, Morrison, Schaetzke and Simmons add size and/or bulk inside, although rebounding may still be a question mark, and Patterson is sound on the perimeter.
"The league is strong again," Heintschel said. "There are a lot of teams with quality kids and young ones, which means the league's future is good."
Coach: Joe Suboticki, third year
Last season: 21-2, 11-0
Top players: Seniors Chris Wyse, 6-3, G; Irmon Young, 6-1, G; Kenny Hairston, 6-1, G; Milo Warren, 6-5, F. Juniors Rob Mumford, 5-10, G; Justin Quinn, 6-3, G-F.
Outlook: Suboticki parlayed a decent returning core and one key transfer player into a district champion in 2005, and then blended three solid transfers (including All-CL standout Grant Maxey from Start) with Scott's top returnees last year and ran the table in the City League en route to the Bulldogs' first CL title in five years.
This year, two more transfers promise to figure greatly into Scott's plans.
Wyse - who played on the Bowsher varsity as a freshman, in Texas as a sophomore and was a key player (11 points) on an 18-3 St. Francis squad last year - will join with former Bowsher starter Hairston in teaming with top Bulldog incumbents Young (5 points) and Warren.
Suboticki looks to quickness, athleticism and strong guard play as team strengths. His top concerns are an overall lack of experience and height, plus potential delays in finding team chemistry.
"If we can get a rebound and gel as a unit," Suboticki said, "we should be pretty good."
Coach: Gil Guerrero, eighth year
Last season: 14-8, 7-4
Top players: Seniors Chris Wilson, 6-4, C; Jeff Williams, 6-2, G; Robert Lonas, 6-4, G; Juan Hamilton, 6-1, G; Tim Haynes, 5-7, G.
Outlook: In his third year at Start, Guerrero has rebuilt the Spartans into a solid playoff contender, just missing the CL's final four the past two years. Last year, a tourney upset of Libbey provided a big end-of-season confidence boost.
Wilson (10.5 points, 9.9 rebounds), Williams (8.9 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Lonas (9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds) all return as productive starters. The addition of 6-8 Darius Washington, a transfer from Central, and Sean Woods, a transfer from Bowsher, adds depth and size.
Guerrero's main concerns, however, are a lack of team quickness, perimeter shooting touch, and ball handling.
"We could be pretty good if we can handle the ball against pressure and hit the open outside shot," Guerrero said.
Coach: Paul Patterson, fourth year
Last season: 12-9, 5-6
Top players: Seniors Sam Bastian, 6-5, C; Glenn Burel, 5-8, G. Juniors Matt Collins, 5-10, G; Cory Lehman, 5-10, G; Donte Johnson, 6-2, G.
Outlook: As the CL's only Division II team, Central, even if it misses out on the league playoffs, looks to have the ingredients for a good tournament run after weathering a grueling CL schedule.
Bastian (16.1 points, 7.8 rebounds), a fourth-year starter and a second-team all-leaguer last season, returns to the lineup along with Collins and Lehman. Burel and Johnson add depth to what should be a soild backcourt on a team that will rely on quickness and chemistry.
Patterson sees his team's lack of overall size and relatively inexperienced bench personnel as possible trouble areas. Good, consistent perimeter shooting and team defense are musts.
"It's going to be a battle and a half in the league," Patterson said. "Libbey is the team to beat, Start's loaded, St. John's is St. John's and Scott will be solid. With our group, we're shooting for a final-four berth. That's a definite goal, but it's going to be a battle."
Coach: Nick Lowe, sixth year
Last season: 18-3, 10-1
Top players: Seniors Nick Meinert, 6-2 1/2, W; Marlon Price, 6-6, C; Steven Vaculik, 6-7, C; Matt Meinert, 6-2, G; Alex Rieker, 6-2, W; Steve Wolf, 6-3, F.
Outlook: The Knights are minus two pivotal players from last year, including graduated CL co-player of the year Darryl Roberts (18.2 points), and current senior Chris Wyse, who has transferred to Scott.
The cupboard, however, is far from bare with Nick Meinert (10.5 points, 3 rebounds), Price (8 points, 7 rebounds) and Vaculik (4 points, 7 rebounds) returning as starters. Four other letter winners are also back.
Lowe looks to good senior leadership, size, team chemistry and depth as pluses, but sees a general lack of quickness and potential trouble finding consistent scoring sources.
"The work ethic is great," Lowe said of his team's offseason and preseason efforts. "We hope to translate those positives into a competitive team and one the St. Francis community can be proud of."
Coach: Dave Pitsenbarger, fifth year
Last season: 8-13, 3-8
Top players: Juniors Khari Riley, 6-0, G; Brent Meredith, 6-3, F; Ray Parker, 5-11, G.
Outlook: Although still a relatively young team, the Indians are led by a core of players in their third varsity seasons. Riley (11 points, 5 rebounds) and Meredith (5 points, 4 rebounds) return as starters, and head up the group of 10 players Pitsenbarger plans to utilize regularly to create an up-tempo pace via defensive pressure.
A lack of overall size and the absence of any true senior experience are the coach's main concerns.
"We think we will be competitive," Pitsenbarger said, "but we must play as a team. Individual stats and outside distractions must be minimal. With effort and hustle, we should be in every game until the buzzer."
Coach: Bruce Smith, 16th year
Last season: 5-16, 3-8
Top players: Senior Ryan Hafner, 6-2, F. Juniors Ryne Smith, 6-3, G; Dave Sweeney, 5-11, G; Kevin Koger, 6-4, C; Antwan Willis, 6-3, C; Jeremy Jones, 6-0, G.
Outlook: The Panthers are two years removed from an appearance in the CL playoffs, but hope to make a more competitive run at the upper portion of the league standings this year behind four returning starters plus four other returning letter winners.
Smith (13 points), Sweeney (8.5 points), Koger (9 points, 6.2 rebounds) and Willis (6.1 points) lead the way for the Panthers, who possess decent overall size and depth, plus experience in the backcourt. Perimeter shooting is coach Smith's top concern.
"We look forward to the challenge of the upcoming season," coach Smith said, "and we look to be very competitive by the end of the year."
Coach: Joe Guerrero, 12th year
Last season: 10-12, 2-9
Top players: Senior A.J. Achter, 6-5, F. Juniors Zac Taylor, 6-8, C; Jordan Kovacs, 5-11, G. Sophomore Drew Kuns, 6-2, W.
Outlook: The Eagles were decimated by injuries last season, with three key players missing significant time with injuries. This year, a healthy group is led by the tandem of Taylor (12.5, 9.1 rebounds), who has already committed to the University of Toledo, and Achter (12.8 points), who will play baseball at Michigan State.
Kovacs and Kuns each started and saw significant playing time because of the injuries, and will help on the perimeter.
Guerrero hopes his team's work ethic will help offset inexperience, as the varsity roster includes five sophomores.
"This is one of the hardest working teams I've had," Guerrero said. "We're very young, but they play very hard and we may surprise some people."
Coach: Jason Moss, second year
Last season: 6-15, 4-7
Top players: Juniors Lee Tabb, 6-8, F; Andrew Schuler, 5-7, G.
Outlook: The Rams feature Tabb (8 points, 8.2 rebounds) as their only returning starter, and Schuler is the only other letter winner back. Although Moss has some decent size on his roster, he points to youth and inexperience as his top concerns.
"I think we can compete with the rest of the league," Moss said, "if we can work together as a team."
Coach: Corey Tucker, second year
Last season: 5-14, 1-10
Top players: Seniors Shannon Grice, 6-1, G; DeMarcus Cummings, 6-3, G; Gary Wells, 6-4, F. Junior Rasean Gordon, 6-6, F.
Outlook: Four starters plus four other letter winners return for the Polar Bears, who will rely on good backcourt depth and overall quickness and athleticism to make some strides in the CL standings.
Grice (13.8 points, 6.1 rebounds) and Cummings (10.4 points, 4.8 boards) should lead the way. Tucker points to a lack of size and minimal frontcourt depth as possible trouble areas.
"We must develop a team chemistry early in the season," Tucker said. "If we play like a team on both sides of the ball, we will be competitive. We play a tough nonleague schedule, so we have to be ready."
Coach: Keith Lowe, third year
Last season: 4-15, 3-8
Top players: Seniors Matt Kaighin, 6-1, G; Ryan Ehrhardt, 6-1, F. Juniors Joe Stockdale, 6-2, F; Justin Warner, 6-2, G.
Outlook: The Rebels return four letter winners, but did lose a couple potential contributors who transferred to other CL teams. Lowe looks for better team chemistry and more emphasis on the team aspect this season, but sees youth and inexperience as top concerns along with a lack of overall size.
"We've had some people leave and some new people come in," Lowe said. "We're just trying to get 'em to play together. Right now it's sort of up in the air. I think we have the potential to be a pretty good team if everything falls into place."