When the 2004-05 high school basketball season ended, it was easy to speculate that Libbey would be the clear choice as the City League championship favorite and a state-title contender the following year with talented starters Nate Miles, Chris Poellnitz, William Buford, Terry Sandridge and Marcus Outlaw all expected back for the 2005-06 Cowboys.
It was only speculation.
Miles, not long after his sophomore school year ended, announced he had committed to Xavier University and also that he was transferring to the prestigious national prep basketball power Oak Hill Academy. He would ultimately transfer back to Libbey and then transfer to Waite and not play a single minute last season. He ended the year at a school in Texas.
Poellnitz attempted a transfer to Scott for his senior year, but wound up instead at a prep school in North Carolina. It was the fifth transfer in his high school career.
The 6-8 Outlaw, who had arrived from Detroit the year before, transferred to Scott along with fellow senior Sandridge, and joined with another transfer, Grant Maxey (from Start), in helping the Bulldogs to their first City championship in five years.
"We were disappointed, but not disillusioned by that," Libbey coach Leroy Bates said of the defections. "We knew we had a nucleus of fine young people that were committed to our basketball program, so we knew we just had to move on. That's what we did."
The only starter Bates had from his would-be dream team was Buford, who was a sophomore last season.
After those guys left, my perspective and the perspective of the coaching staff was that we re here to work with the kids that are at Libbey, said Bates, who enters his 14th season with a 207-109 record.
The talented younger group of Cowboys were thrown into what was arguably the most challenging schedule in Ohio.
Aside from its two losses to state-ranked rival Scott (21-2) and one to then state-ranked St. Francis de Sales (18-3), five other Libbey defeats came against D-I state champion Canton McKinley, D-II state champion Dayton Dunbar, and to three other teams who reached state semifinals in March St. John s Jesuit and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary from Ohio, and Detroit Redford, which made the Michigan big-school semis.
The mass exodus of those other guys gave these young people, who were committed to our program, an opportunity to play top-flight competition, Bates said. That made us better, not just for last year, but for three years because most of em are just juniors this year. This team will be highly competitive. They have matured greatly from last year s tough schedule.
Either you re going to take lemons and make lemonade, or you re going to be bitter because you got the lemons. We just took the lemons and made lemonade, and we re happy about the mix of what we re going to have to drink this year.
Buford, who was thrust into the leadership role, blossomed into the Blade s player of the year, the City League s co-player of the year and a second-team All-Ohio selection. He led the CL in scoring (22.7 points per game) and rebounding (10.9), and continued to draw heavy college recruiting attention during his summer AAU tournament play.
We did pretty good against the big teams last year, Buford said. Coach Bates did it to make us better. I think that will benefit us this year because we ve got a tough schedule this year, too.
I feel pretty good about our team. We ve just got to work hard as a team and not separate. I take the challenge as captain of the team to keep everybody together. If I see something wrong, I can talk to the person.
Buford recently committed to Ohio State University, adding to the blue-chip talent pool being accumulated by Buckeyes coach Thad Matta. He said making the decision early will help him focus.
Now I can just worry about having fun on the court and doing my schoolwork, Buford said. I don t have to worry about all the college coaches calling.
I m not going to switch my game. I m going to keep getting my teammates involved because that s the way we have to win.
Classmates Julius Wells (10 points, 7.4 rebounds), a 6-5 forward, and Brad Sandridge (7.2 points, 5.6 rebounds), a 6-3 guard, also got a chance to elevate their games. They likely would have seen only limited court time without the exodus.
Last year [going in] we didn t have a lot of experience, Wells said. This year we do because of the toughness of the schedule. This year we re mentally tougher and we re ready to go.
That [tough schedule] motivated us and made us more hungry to win, Brad Sandridge said. We want to get to state. We have the weapons to get down there. It s just going to take discipline, a lot of discipline.
Some of that discipline will come from the team s leader on the floor.
What William Buford brings to the court is a sense of urgency, Bates said. He wants to get better and he wants his teammates to get better. All those guys feed off each other. Brad is a very competitive person and Julius is very athletic and a competitive person also.
Joining with fellow returnees James Arnold and Generio Kizer, both seniors, and Brad Burton, a junior, Libbey s trio of marquee juniors make the Cowboys the clear-cut team to beat in the City League this year.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6461.