Going into last season,
Libbey was a unanimous favorite to win the City League basketball championship and lived up to that forecast, running the table in league play and beating St. Francis de Sales and St. John's Jesuit in the CL playoffs.
One year later, little has changed with all five starters plus a few key subs returning for the Cowboys.
The only changes, besides graduating a couple of senior subs, is that veteran coach Leroy Bates' team is a year older, a year wiser and, probably, even a few notches better than the team that ended 21-2 with an upset loss to St. John's in the Division I district final. That was Libbey's only loss to an Ohio team.
"There's a lot of good City League teams that have experienced players, so I don't see us taking any team lightly this year," said Bates, whose 2007-08 team may prove to be his best ever.
Bates is 228-111 overall through his first 15 seasons at Libbey, with two CL titles and one trip to the Division I state semifinals. That trip was made in 2000, when his top-ranked Cowboys - led by CL player of the year Eyuless Palmer and guards Marques Fobbs and Jamaal Mays - went 25-0 before losing to Bedford.
This year, for the first time, Libbey's decreased enrollment has dropped the Cowboys from Division I to Division II for tournament play, likely making them an even stronger contender for a state championship.
"We're going to have to come out every day and prove to each other that we belong in the state [title hunt]," Bates said. "It's all about work ethic. If we can get them to continue to work hard, then it doesn't really matter who we're playing. If we've scouted the team well enough, we feel we can play with anybody in the state."
At the top, the Cowboys feature Ohio State-bound 6-5 senior guard William Buford, who received City League, northwest district and All-Blade player of the year honors the past two years along with first-team All-Ohio recognition last season, when he averaged 28.5 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
But Buford's supporting cast is brimming with talents of its own, and that reality was enough for City League coaches to again vote the Cowboys as unanimous favorites to repeat their CL crown.
Collecting all 12 first-place votes, Libbey received the maximum 144 voting points in the preseason poll of CL coaches.
St. John's (17-8, 9-2) was picked second at 128 points, Central Catholic was tabbed for third at 112, and St. Francis was fourth at 102, meaning that league coaches believe the final-four playoff field will be a duplication of last season.
"Everybody's looking at Libbey as far as the City goes," St. John's coach Ed Heintschel said. "And Whitmer, Central, St. Francis, Waite and Scott should also be good. The league has been playing some good younger players the last couple years, and those kids have now matured. It should be a highly competitive league."
Heintschel, the winningest basketball coach in City League history, enters the season poised for a personal milestone with a 498-152 record. His Titan teams have won 11 City championships, 11 district titles, and advanced to the Division I state semifinals five times, including state runner-up finishes in 1993, 1996 and 2004.
Whitmer, Waite and Scott filled the next three voting slots and are seen as the next most likely playoff contenders should any of the favorites falter.
Here is a look at the teams listed in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Leroy Bates, 16th year
Last season: 21-2 overall, 11-0 CL
Top players: Seniors William Buford, 6-5, G; Julius Wells, 6-5, F; Brad Sandridge, 6-3, G; Brad Burton, 6-2, F; Anthony Brown, 6-3, G; Lance Jones, 6-5, G-F.
Outlook: Any way you cut it, the Cowboys are loaded as they prepare to defend their CL title and hope to gun for a state championship. Buford, who should be an Ohio Mr. Basketball candidate, is counted among the nation's top seniors. The Marist-bound Wells is back from a knee injury that stole more than half of his junior season. Sandridge (12.6 points) and Burton are proven producers at both ends, Brown presents matchup problems at the point, and Jones, off the bench, would be a top starter on many other teams. Rod Everage, a 6-6 senior transfer from Start, adds depth inside, and senior Shawn Purnell and junior Brandon Ham also return with varsity experience.
"We need to stay within a team concept," Bates said. "With so many returning players, you have to make sure that everybody buys into playing for the team first."
Coach: Ed Heintschel, 29th year
Last season: 17-8, 9-2
Top players: Senior Andrew Schaetzke, 6-4, F. Juniors Michael Taylor, 6-1, G; Tim Simmons, 6-7, F; Tim Kynard, 6-3, F. Sophomore Jay Springs, 6-0, G. Freshman Cheatham Norrils, 5-10, G.
Outlook: The Titans battled Libbey tough in last year's CL final, then upset the Cowboys in the D-I district final. They lose the strong perimeter game and leadership of graduated guards Joe Jakubowski (now at Bowling Green State University) and Sean Patterson to graduation, but Taylor and Springs form a solid backcourt with Norrils, who will be only the second freshman to start in Heintschel's 29 seasons. The first was All-Ohioan Neshaun Coleman (Ohio State).
St. John's has an athletic core with plenty of experience and depth. With Libbey in D-II, the Titans' tourney path is less ominous until the regional. Seniors Aaron Koonce (5-6 G) and Alvin Thomas (6-3 F) add depth. Schaetzke brings a physical presence inside, and Simmons has made major strides in his game. Heintschel seeks a stabilizing guard to step up in crucial late-game situations in the tradition of past Titan leaders Jakubowski, Mike Floyd, Brian Roberts, John Floyd, Jamal Jarrett, Adam Galat, Ryan Carder, Laran Sims and Denny Amrhein.
Coach: Paul Patterson, fifth year
Last season: 14-7, 8-3
Top players: Seniors Cory Lehman, 5-10, G; Matt Collins, 5-10, G; Donte Johnson, 6-2, F; Tory Villolovos, 6-1, F. Junior Bruce Huntley, 6-2, F.
Outlook: The strength of the Fighting Irish promises to come from the backcourt duo of Lehman (12.5 points) and Collins (10.7), each a proven third-year starter with solid all-around guard skills. Johnson also returns as a starter, and Huntley and Villolovos were key contributors last year. Seniors Brandon Ware (6-6 F) and Curtis Jewell (6-2 F) add to the depth inside. Patterson sees an overall lack of size forcing Central to be scrappy on the boards.
"There's a lot of possibilities for this group," Patterson said. "It was our goal to make the final four last year, and we did that. We've taken steps forward, and now it's time to take a bigger step. We need to play consistent and finish games. We need to be mentally prepared every game, and having seven seniors should help."
Coach: Nick Lowe, seventh year
Last season: 12-8, 8-3
Top players: Seniors Kevin Henry, 6-4, G; Jordan Frost, 6-4, W; Phil Clauda, 6-5, F; Moses Ramey, 5-10, G; Fahro Ali Hodzic, 6-9, P. Junior Jake Szenderski, 6-3, G. Sophomore Storm Stanley, 6-10, P.
Outlook: Henry and Frost return as starters, and the Knights will have the biggest frontcourt in town with Stanley and Ali Hodzic, an exchange student from England. Sophomore Kent Goldsmith (6-1 G) adds to an already deep roster, and the team's overall size should lead to a rebounding edge on most nights. Lowe points to an overall lack of varsity experience as a possible barrier, and is uncertain about the Knights' perimeter shooting.
"Having to play our first four City League games on the road, we hope we'll still be in a position to compete for a final four spot in a league that is very competitive," Lowe said. "Our goal is to mature quickly. If we can blend together and all be on the same page, that goal is attainable."
Coach: Bruce Smith, 17th year
Last season: 12-9, 6-5
Top players: Seniors Ryne Smith, 6-3, G; Kevin Koger, 6-4, P; Antwan Willis, 6-3, P; Jeremy Jones, 6-0, G; Beau Norton, 6-2, G-F; Dewayne Frazier, 6-0, G.
Outlook: Ryne Smith (17.3 points), Bruce's son, improved significantly enough in summer-league play to earn a scholarship to Purdue, and he and Koger return for their fourth seasons on the varsity. Willis (7.1 rebounds) and Jones are third-year members. Seniors Corey Alexander (5-8 G) and Josh Gorney (6-1 G) add to the Panthers' depth and experience. Overall size is decent, so rebounding should be a plus and, once the football contingent (Koger, Jones, Norton, Frazier) completes the transition from a playoff run in that sport to practicing basketball, coach Smith expects his team to shoot well.
"We have hardly any time to find out whether we're good, bad or in between," coach Smith said. "We haven't had much prep time. It would be nice to get off to a good start, and I expect us to be competitive with anybody in the league."
Coach: Dave Pitsenbarger, fourth year
Last season: 7-14, 2-9
Top players: Seniors Brent Meredith, 6-3, F; Khari Riley, 6-1, G; Hakeem Muhammad, 5-9, G; Robert Jackson, 5-10, G; Ray Parker, 6-0, G. Junior Darius Glover, 6-3, F.
Outlook: In addition to fourth-year varsity veterans Meredith, Riley and Parker, the Indians, who return five starters plus four other letter winners, also blend in promising freshmen cousins Dishon Harris (6-1 G) and Ke-Sean Harris (5-10 G). Senior Sean Pettaway adds depth. The Indians should be quick, and Pitsenbarger is hoping the experience will pay off in a CL final-four berth. Waite does lack size, so rebounding may suffer at times, and perimeter shooting needs to become more consistent.
"If we stay healthy, I think we can compete with anybody in the City," said Pitsenbarger, who is in his seventh year overall as Waite's coach. "We fell short in six or seven games last year by four points or less, so finishing games will be the key this year. We need to stay out of early foul trouble because that's hurt us in the past, and we need to make smart decisions offensively."
Coach: Joe Suboticki, fourth year
Last season: 14-5, 7-4
Top players: Seniors Rob Mumford, 5-10, G; David Sweeney, 5-11, G; Antwan Jones, 6-2, W; Hakeem Greer, 6-1, G. Juniors Sheron Allen, 6-4, F; Owen Dotson, 6-4, F.
Outlook: The Bulldogs unraveled late last season after a solid start, and missed out on the CL playoffs for the first time in several years. Suboticki points to some midseason academic ineligibility and subsequent selfish play for that demise. He looks for a more cohesive group this season. Transfers Sweeney (from Whitmer, 18.7 points) and Jones (from Woodward (11.8 points) help offset the inexperience of a Bulldog team that returns no starters and just four letterwinners. Seniors Mike Armstrong and Jeremiah Davis add depth. Quickness is a plus, and the overall size is up from a year ago. Rebounding and the team's ability to blend will be key in Scott's goal to be a CL contender.
"I'm pretty optimistic," Suboticki said. "We've come a long way in the preseason and made significant advances so far. After Libbey and St. John's, we should be right there. Last year we didn't share the ball. That shouldn't happen this year. If we rebound and share the ball, we should compete well with anybody."
Coach: Earl Morris, first year
Last season: 2-17, 0-11
Top players: Seniors Lee Tabb, 6-8, P; Andrew Schuler, 5-6, G. Juniors DeLanta Heard, 6-7, P; Craig Short, 6-5, F; Traymone Camas, 5-7, G.
Outlook: Morris, who led Scott for six successful seasons (1999-2004), will greet four starters and five other letterwinners from last season. Size is a plus, and experience is there. Tabb (15 rebounds per game) and Heard form a presence in the post, but Morris sees an overall need to cut down on turnovers and to play stronger defensively before the Rams become competitive in the CL.
"I'm enjoying it because it's a challenge," Morris said. "We've got a lot of work to do, and the kids are learning a new system. We're going to go deep [in lineup] early on to see what we've got. It's a reasonable expectation to go .500 for the season, and that would be a great improvement. We hope to get better as the year goes on. Working together as a unit will be the key."
Coach: Gil Guerrero, fourth year
Last season: 12-7, 6-5
Top players: Seniors Dwain Golladay, 5-11, G; Ottarreus Waller, 5-9, G; Mike Williamson, 5-11, G. Juniors Devin Russell, 6-8, P; Devore Clark, 5-11, G.
Outlook: The Spartans just missed out on CL playoff berths the past two years, but contending for one this year may be a long shot with no returning starters and just two letterwinners returning. Start graduated nine seniors from its roster. Guerrero, who is in his 10th overall season as coach at Start, said it's too soon to tell what his inexperienced team's strengths might be, but sees a need for improvement in the basic areas of shooting, ball-handling and rebounding.
"We're in a rebuilding season," Guerrero said. "Hopefully we'll get these kids some experience and they will eventually become competitive in the City League. The key will be handling the ball well and hitting some shots. Rebounding is going to be tough."
Coach: Darrell Dorn, first year
Last season: 10-9, 6-5
Top players: Seniors Dionte McClendon, 6-4, P; Rasean Gordon, 6-5, P; Dorian Phillips, 5-8, G. Juniors Brian Estis, 5-6, G; Jack Mabry, 6-8, P. Sophomore Brandon Underwood, 5-8, G.
Outlook: Dorn returns to Woodward, where he was the coach two previous seasons (2003-05). He succeeds Corey Tucker (now an Owens College assistant), who led the Polar Bears to their first winning season in 35 years. Only one starter (Underwood) and two other letterwinners return to a team that will rely heavily on quickness and chemistry. Rebounding may pose problems. There is talent at the junior varsity level (CL runners-up as frosh last year), but Dorn is keeping that group together during this expected rebuilding phase. Potential returnee Antwan Jones transferred to Scott.
"I think we can be overachievers," Dorn said, "if we stay together as a family and as a unit, and deal with adversity. We're just setting a foundation for the future."
Coach: Joe Guerrero, 14th year
Last season: 9-10, 3-8
Top players: Senior Zac Taylor, 6-9, C. Juniors Drew Kuns, 6-3, G; Matt Swaim, 6-1, G; Eric Holmes, 6-0, G.
Outlook: The Eagles have been hurt by graduation and injury. A.J. Achter (19.8 points, 7 rebounds) is now at Michigan State on a baseball scholarship, and Taylor (18.6 points, 10.1 rebounds), a first-team All-CL player who recently signed with the University of Toledo, is still rehabbing after July knee surgery. He likely won't be back until after Christmas. In addition, potential guard Tyler TenEyck sustained a football injury that will force him to miss the basketball season. The inexperienced Eagles that remain are quicker than last year and should shoot and handle the ball OK. Kuns (10.1 points) is counted on for leadership but, until Taylor returns, Clay may struggle to compete in the CL.
"We have good team chemistry and they're working very hard," Guerrero said. "I'm confident that we'll improve as the season goes on. We'll have to overcome the loss of Zac because he became a real inside presence last year."
Coach: John Rice, first year
Last season: 2-17, 1-10
Top players: Seniors Justin Warnes, 6-2, G-F; Thomas Mayes, 6-3, C. Sophomore Austin Boisselle, 6-1, G. Freshman Robert Davis, 6-1, G.
Outlook: Rice, a veteran of 35 years, including 30 at Whiteford, lands in the CL with a rebuilding project the first order of business. He inherits just one returning starter and one other letterwinner from a team that struggled mightily last season. Rice, who will build around Warnes (11.4 points), is still assessing his team's potential strengths, but knows a lack of size and experience coupled with the transition to a new system will be a tall order for his players.
"The players are working hard to understand the team concept and the value of good defense," Rice said. "At this point, I'm trying to incorporate my philosophy and getting them to buy into it. If we're going to have any success at all, we have to play solid defense and rebound by committee."