With two starters plus two other letter winners back from a team that shared the Suburban Lakes League title with Gibsonburg last season, the Elmwood Royals were the unanimous pick of league coaches to win their third straight SLL boys basketball crown.
Leading the way for the Royals (16-6, 12-2 SLL) is third-year starter Dustin Reynolds, a 6-6 senior wing who landed first-team all-district recognition in Division III and shared league player of the year honors last season.
Entering his seventh season as Elmwood head coach, Doug Reynolds (Dustin's father) knows a thing or two about winning basketball games.
Before this current stint at his alma mater, he coached the Hopewell-Loudon girls (eight seasons, 157-36 record) to statewide success with his daughters DiDi and Danielle as key players. They won six straight Midland Athletic League titles, were state runners-up in 1998 and state champions in 1999.
"When you know you're the hunted, you know you have to go out every night and play your best," said coach Reynolds, who welcomes the favorite's role because of its motivational value. "I'd rather have that because it keeps you on your toes.
"It's nice to have that respect, being picked first by the coaches, because you know they think highly of your program. But that is just something on paper. Now that the games are going to start, you have to go out and prove it on the court."
The Royals will aim at an outright SLL title after sharing the crown with Woodmore in 2004-05 - when both Elmwood and Woodmore advanced to the D-III regionals - and with Gibsonburg last year.
Eastwood, which lost the SLL's dean of coaches (Steve Stoller) to retirement after 21 seasons, was picked to finish second in the league under first-year coach Jim Robinson Jr., who previously coached in the SLL at Lake.
Genoa was tabbed for third, Otsego fourth and Gibsonburg (19-5, 12-2), which advanced to the D-III regionals last year, was voted fifth.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Doug Reynolds, seventh year
Last season: 16-6, 12-2 SLL
Top players: Seniors Dustin Reynolds, 6-6, W; Ryan Rothenbuhler, 5-11, G; Cory Stewart, 6-1, G. Juniors Ben Hammer, 6-1, W; P.J. Shank, 6-4, C.
Outlook: The Royals have the SLL's top returning player in Reynolds (16.2 points, 9.8 rebounds) and a reliable triggerman in point guard Rothenbuhler. P.J. Shank, a 6-4 junior, adds size in the post.
Quickness, perimeter shooting and the clear understanding of court roles are all pluses, according to coach Reynolds, who sees the Royals as a "close-knit unit."
Getting his younger players (from last year's junior varsity) adjusted to varsity competition is his top early-season concern.
"I am looking for an exciting year," coach Reynolds said. "We have good experience back and some very hard-working kids. That will make us competitive every night."
Coach: Jim Robinson Jr., first year
Last season: 6-15, 5-9
Top players: Seniors Trey Hunter, 6-0, F; Josh Fairbanks, 6-0, F. Juniors Chad Fairbanks, 6-2, F; Nick Schling, 5-11, G
Outlook: The Eagles return two starters plus two other letter winners, but graduated their top two scorers and rebounders from last season. In his first year at the helm, Robinson is counting on his team's quickness and agility to foster a press-and-run tempo.
Overall inexperience is a concern to Robinson, as is his team's lack of size, which could mean rebounding difficulty.
"We're counting on our four returning letter winners to lead the way," Robinson said. "Our goals are to win the SLL and compete in the district tournament. We will strive for those until the end."
Coach: Jeff Overmyer, seventh year
Last season: 15-6, 10-4
Top players: Seniors Chris
Bassitt, 6-3, F; Adam Schumacher, 6-0, G; Ryan Gargas, 6-4, F; Alex Wolff, 6-2, G.
Outlook: The Comets return only one starter (Bassitt, 8.4 points), having graduated first-team All-SLL player Cory Hornyak and SLL second-teamer Anthony Robertson. But six other letter winners join Bassitt in trying to fill the void.
Size, depth and lineup versatility are seen as pluses by Overmyer, who points to team defense and turnovers as chief concerns.
"We're aiming for the school's first SLL title since 1996," Overmyer said. "In order for that to happen, the team must improve at the defensive end to take pressure off of the offense."
Coach: Jim Bostdorff, second year
Last season: 11-12, 7-7
Top players: Seniors Chris Falls, 5-10, G; Caleb Clark, 6-2, C. Junior Seth Childers, 6-4, C.
Outlook: The Knights are short two key Donalds this year. Casey Donald, the SLL's top scorer (17.6 points) last season, graduated, and cousin Cody Donald, the All-Ohio football running back, opted not to play basketball this year.
Bostdorff will rely heavily on the inside size and strength of Childers (5.2 points, 6 rebounds) and Clark (4 points, 3.3 boards) in trying to build a league contender. With Childers as the lone returning starter, Bostdorff's top concern is overall varsity inexperience.
"We need to replace eight seniors, four starters and 45 points per game," Bostdorff said. "We have some kids who have waited for their opportunity to play and must now step forward and perform well."
Coach: Brent Liskai, fifth year
Last season: 19-5, 12-2
Top players: Juniors Jordan Kirwen, 6-0, G; Matt Kreglow, 6-0, G.
Outlook: Coming off a highly successful season when the Golden Bears shared the SLL title and advanced to the Division III regionals, Liskai looks to rebuild after losing all five starters to graduation.
The Bears, who return just two letter winners, will rely on solid guard play, decent team depth and good overall quickness. Inexperience, especially in the post, could be Liskai's primary trouble area.
"We will be competitive and try to build on last season's success," Liskai said. "The league should be very competitive from top to bottom."
Coach: Ty Ray, second year
Last season: 8-14, 5-9
Top players: Seniors Austin Dean, 6-1, G; Charles Wooten, 6-2, W; Drew Renken, 6-0, C. Juniors Corey Witker, 5-10, C; Chris Noe, 6-2, C.
Outlook: Having dipped last season after their 21-3 regional tournament advancement in 2004-05, the Wildcats look to improve on last season's finish, but will have an uphill battle with only one returning starter.
Ray views good team chemistry, decent perimeter potential and overall depth as probable pluses for his team, which will have to offset a lack of height and experience.
"We hope to compete in the league on a nightly basis," Ray said. "Our goal every year is to improve and be playing our best basketball at tournament time."
Coach: Terry Tansel, third year
Last season: 7-14, 5-8
Top players: Seniors Adam Ashman, 6-9, C; Mike Curry, 6-2, C; Jason Robinson, 6-0, W; Brandon Rice, 6-0, G; Nate Keil, 5-10, G.
Outlook: The Flyers return two starters plus three other letter winners, but graduated their top three scorers (combined 36.4 points per game) from a year ago.
Tansel still sees experience as a plus with six senior returnees, and views interior offense as a strength. His chief concerns are maintaining a patient approach on the court and keeping games in the 60s to give his team a greater chance to win.
"We are excited about the upcoming season and look to be competitive in all of our games," Tansel said.
Coach: Joe Pennington, second year
Last season: 1-20, 0-14
Top players: Senior Jordan Allison, 6-0, G. Juniors Nathan Hoffman, 6-2, C; Ryan Babcock, 6-1, G; Victor Magallanes, 5-8, G.
Outlook: The Raiders have just one returning starter and two other letter winners back. Compounding the problem is the graduation of Trever Hohman (14.4 points, 7.8 rebounds), who was Lakota's lone consistent producer during a difficult season.
Pennington looks to good conditioning to foster pressure defense, which he hopes will help tire opponents and create better offensive opportunities.
His top concerns are inexperience and a lack of size, deficiencies which may make a significant SLL climb difficult.
"We look to compete with teams early in the season," Pennington said, "and grow as the season progresses."