If this year's City League girls basketball race were a poker game, Central Catholic would be a safe bet to break Waite's three-year hold on the title.
While the Irish certainly don't hold all the cards in terms of talented players, they do possess the best hand. All five starters return and, if coach Steve Pfahler needs to draw on his bench, there are plenty of decent options there as well with four more letterwinners.
Central (18-8, 9-2), which advanced to the Division I regional final last March after upsetting Waite (19-2, 11-0) in the district semifinals, easily has the deepest squad in what has become a highly competitive City League in recent seasons.
This incumbent personnel was enough to convince nine of the 12 CL coaches to pick Central first in their preseason poll. The Irish placed first in the voting.
Waite, which garnered the other three first-place nods, was voted second. Start, which advanced to the district final before falling to Central, was tabbed for third, and Notre Dame was fourth.
"It was a learning process," Pfahler said of the 2006-07 season. "As the season went on we started to click, it kind of steadily got better, and they grew closer together.
"Now they get along really well, and they are willing to learn. They're a veteran group and we expect them to know what's going on offensively and defensively."
Back to lead Central are sturdy 6-1 junior post player Brianna Jones and speedy 5-7 senior guard Sharise Calhoun.
Jones averaged 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds, and Calhoun averged 11.7 points and 3.0 assists. Senior guard Danielle Lewis was a third-team CL pick.
But - if Central is to resume its dominance in the league, which before Waite's three-year title run included eight straight CL crowns for the Irish - it will first have to dethrone another talented Indians team.
Waite brings back three starters, including one of the most gifted talents in Ohio in 6-3 sophomore Natasha Howard, who led the league in scoring last year (16.3) and was second in rebounding (11.2).
The Indians also will have the proven guard talent of Keaira "Ke-Ke" Marsenburg, a senior transfer from Start, who was third in the CL scoring race (15.6).
"I expect this team to do nothing short of what the teams before them accomplished," coach Manny May said.
Start is led by 6-1 junior post standout Yolanda Richardson (12.9 points, 13.1 rebounds), and Notre Dame is paced by superb senior guard Patrice Lalor (13.9 points, 5.1 rebounds), who has been chosen to the All-City first team her first three seasons.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Steve Pfahler, 18th year
Last season: 18-8, 9-2
Top players: Seniors Sharise Calhoun, 5-7, G; Danielle Lewis, 5-6, G; Ashley Frazier, 6-2, C; Lauren Farell, 5-5, G; Katelyn Nowacki, 6-0, F; Paige Weaver, 5-9, F. Junior Brianna Jones, 6-1, C.
Outlook: In a word, the Irish are loaded. In addition to the potent trio of Jones, Calhoun and Lewis, Frazier is a fourth-year varsity player and Farell also returns as a starter. Weaver and Nowacki provided a solid 1-2 punch off the bench last season, and senior Valerie Gang and junior Ashley Sujkowski provide able depth.
Experience, chemistry, depth, size, balanced scoring, sound defense and good communication are all pluses.
"The City League is very good," Pfahler said. "There are probably five teams that will battle it out at the top. We got to the regional final last year, so we need to guard against complacency. There's too many teams out there that can beat you. You have to be prepared to play hard every night."
Coach: Manny May, 10th year
Last season: 19-2, 11-0
Top players: Seniors Kenya Middlebrooks, 5-8, G; Keaira Marsenburg, 5-7, G. Junior Stephanie Keaton, 5-8, F. Sophomores Natasha Howard, 6-3, F; Courtney Jackson, 5-7, G.
Outlook: The Indians must first find a way to fill the huge void created by the graduation of Shareese Ulis (three-time CL player of the year) and Anderia Allen. That transition will likely be made easier by the transfer of Marsenburg, provided a knee injury doesn't curtail her production. Middlebrooks is a capable scorer from the perimeter, and Jackson gained valuable experience as Waite's top sub. Keaton can mix it up inside, and junior Shantel Perkins provides depth.
Quickness, athletic ability, perimeter shooting touch and unselfish play are areas May sees as team strengths. Finding leadership, improving on the boards, and free-throw shooting are top concerns.
"It's going to take hard work, motivation, dedication, discipline and determination night in and night out, but we expect to be up to the challenge," May said of his team's chances of defending the title. "But there's a lot of talented teams in the City League."
Coach: Bob Brown, second year
Last season: 17-5, 8-3
Top players: Seniors T.T. Arnold, 5-3, G; Shaleca McCorey, 5-7, F; Francesca Adams, 5-0, G. Junior Yolanda Richardson, 6-1, C.
Outlook: The Spartans started hot last year, hit a lull late in the regular season that took them out of the CL playoff field, but then regained some momentum in the tournament behind the strong inside play of Richardson.
Brown looks for a more consistent effort this year, and the transfer of Marsenburg should be offset by the emergence of perhaps the league's top freshman player, Maleeka Kynard, a 5-6 guard who led Byrnedale to a Toledo Public Schools junior high title last season.
Brown counts on team chemistry, quickness, athletic ability and size to carry the Spartans, but realizes that inexperience at some spots may hinder their efforts.
"We're hoping to be pretty good," Brown said. "I'd like to think we're going to battle for the [CL] final four. As the season goes on, if we keep getting better, we're hoping to be a pretty good team by the end of the year."
Coach: Rhett Boyd, fifth year
Last season: 14-6, 9-2
Top players: Seniors Patrice Lalor, 5-7, G; Mackenzie Strall, 5-9, G-F. Juniors Jasmine Blanton, 5-9, G; Kasey Fought, 5-8, G.
Outlook: The Eagles are expected to be in the thick of the CL chase with the battle-tested Lalor serving as court general. Blanton, Fought and Strall were also a part of the starting mix last year, and senior Dominique Pryor adds depth. Strong guard play, and overall quickness, athleticism and experience are on Boyd's checklist of team strengths. With an overall lack of size, rebounding is his chief concern.
"We're very excited about the season," Boyd said. "We feel, if our experienced players continue to improve, and our new players adapt to the varsity game sooner rather than later, we'll have a chance to be in the hunt come February."
Coach: Dennis Mussery, first year
Last season: 14-8, 8-3
Top players: Senior Tiara Roberts, 5-10, G. Junior Taylor Brown, 5-10, F. Sophomore Tiffani Blackman, 5-11, F.
Outlook: Mussery, who previously coached four years at Otsego and nine at Ottawa Hills, succeeds Karen Lake, who built the Rebels into perennial CL contenders over her nine seasons. He inherits two returning starters in Roberts, who contributed 11.6 points and 6.0 rebounds a year ago, and Blackman (9.6 points, 9.1 rebounds), who missed nine games with an injury.
Brown (5.3 boards) adds to the inside game. But the Rebels graduated four-year starter Stephany Johnson (now at Xavier). Three of the Rebels' current seniors played JV ball last year, and six varsity members are sophomores, so inexperience may pose problems.
"I expect to be competitive and we hope to contend for the final four," Mussery said. "I'm optimistic we can earn a final four spot. It'll come down to execution and whether or not we can impose our will on teams. I'm not sure we'll have enough depth."
Coach: Dave Rieker, first year
Last season: 9-11, 5-6
Top players: Seniors Courtney Durbin, 5-6, G; Marie Fudacez, 5-8, F-C. Juniors Hillary Lorton, 5-5, G; Holly Lorton, 5-5, G; Haley Hillesland, 5-11, F; Morgan Bechtal, 5-7, F.
Outlook: If the Arrows expect to climb into the CL playoff chase they will have to grow up in a hurry. Only one starter and one other letterwinner return, and only two of the 10 players are seniors. SUA lost two potential players when Danielle Case and Alyssa Niese, both seniors and Division I college soccer recruits, opted not to play basketball this year, and another on the first day of practice when junior Allie Findley sustained a knee injury.
Rieker, formerly a player at the University of Toledo and an assistant boys coach at both Maumee and St. Francis, will rely on his team's quickness and hustle as it tries to offset a lack of size and experience.
"We're trying to start fresh with a new attitude, and I do expect to win," Rieker said. "But, I'm also realistic. If we lose, it'll be because the other team is better, not because our kids don't hustle or because of fundamentals."
Coach: Roger Achter, 13th year
Last season: 4-15, 3-8
Top players: Senior Amanda Watson, 5-3, F. Juniors Jessica Achter, 5-8, F; Lauren Taylor, 5-7, G-F. Sophomores Meghan Scharer, 5-5, G; Nicole Steinmetz, 5-7, F.
Outlook: The Eagles return five starters plus another letterwinner, so significant improvement is expected. Their climb in the competitive CL may be limited, however, as size is lacking and perimeter shooting remains a question mark. Achter sees a quick, physical group on the floor in practice, and hopes the experience will pay some dividends. The overall ball-handling has improved, but shooting will be a make-or-break area.
"We've put in a new offense trying to take advantage of our quickness," Achter said. "We're hoping the kids recognize the reads and where the open areas are. I think we can be in the middle of the [CL] pack, and at least play a role in who gets to the final four."
Coach: Katie Spenthoff, third year
Last season: 6-15, 5-6
Top players: Seniors Bri Nagy, 5-11, C; Ashley Hooker, 5-10, F. Juniors Laura Campbell, 5-10, F; Shelby Ramirez, 5-7, G. Sophomore Malisa Hoak, 5-4, G.
Outlook: The Panthers return three starters with Hooker (10.4 points, 7.1 rebounds), Nagy (7.5 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Campbell. Ramirez and Hoak also lettered.
Size, athleticism and front-court experience should be pluses, while Spenthoff sees her team's potential hinging on how well her younger players adapt.
"Our goal is to become more competitive in the City League,"
Spenthoff said. "We want to be in every game with a chance to win, and we want to be in the mix of teams to beat. Our girls will have to find a way to mesh and get the ball to our scorers."
Coach: Debra Jones, second year
Last season: 7-12, 5-6
Top players: Juniors Shayla Yancey, 5-8, F; Skyler Gregory, 5-6, G; Kendra Rison, 5-7, F; Shatora Lewis, 6-2, C; Alicia Matthews, 5-7, F. Sophomore Shekinah Alexander, 5-6, G.
Outlook: The Bulldogs face an uphill battle to improve on last year's finish with no starters back and just three letterwinners returning in Yancey, Gregory and Rison. Quickness will have to go a long way with potential roadblocks like inexperience and a lack of size and rebounding ability. Still, Jones remains optimistic.
"We're going to be competitive and we look forward to the future with this group as they grow and gel together," Jones said. "We hope to compete for a final four spot. That's always a goal."
Coach: Reuben Furr, second year
Last season: 5-13, 2-9
Top players: Senior Shalah Howze, 5-4, G; Laquarrie Parnell, 5-8, F. Juniors Jasmine Crosby, 5-6, G; Dominique Savage, 6-0, G; Sharese Sample, 5-6, G; Martina Rogers, 5-5, G.
Outlook: The Rams made few strides last season and, with four starters back plus two other letterwinners, Furr sees the potential for a further climb. The coach points to quickness and senior leadership as strong points, and sees potential trouble rebounding. The biggest test will come in finishing games off instead of fading down the stretch.
"We're looking to improve and to just go out and play hard every night," Furr said. "Also, staying injury free is important. We've got Shalah Howze back and that's important. We lost her last year and that was very costly."
Coach: John Hobbs III, first year
Last season: 0-16, 0-11
Top players: Senior Ikeya Birdsong, 5-7, F. Juniors Kenisha Frames, 5-7, F; Jessica Williams, 5-6, G; Kaleigh Williams, 5-7, G-F; Sophomore Destiny Perkins, 6-0, C.
Outlook: Small steps are what Hobbs will start with as he takes over. Four players return from last year's varsity, part of seven regular members of this year's team. The bench will be filled out by some of the seven junior varsity players. There is no freshman team.
"Number one, we want to get rid of the ghosts of the past," Hobbs said, "and try to let them know that it's a new team, a new year and a new philosophy with new coaches.
"We're working on the fundamentals, and it's going to be a building process. It's going to be a tough year for us, but we're going to keep learning game by game and try not to let the scoreboard dictate whether we've won or lost."
Coach: Cornell Talley, first year
Last season: 1-18, 1-10
Top players: Senior Shantel Martin, 5-4, G. Juniors Jonette Purley, 5-7, F; Tara Turner, 5-8, G-F; Sierra Bean, 5-7, G; Heaven Gray, 5-6, G.
Outlook: Talley has two starters back but only one senior, a first-year player, in his 15-member program that does not include a freshman team. So far he has seen a group that has shown a willingness to work together and get along, which is "always the start of good things." But the list of trouble areas is long, and there is a lack of experience.
"We're working hard and making progress," Talley said. "We've got some potential here. It just depends on whether or not we work hard. If everything goes well, we might be able to sneak up on some teams."