FINDLAY - To rebuild or to reload?
That was the question for the Liberty-Benton Eagles entering the 2007-08 boys basketball season.
Four starters graduated from a team that went 20-0, was ranked No. 1 in the Division III state poll and ended 26-1 after falling in the state championship game last March.
Rebuilding would seem to be the more likely option for most programs.
But Liberty-Benton is not most programs.
Not with one of northwest Ohio's winningest coaches in charge and arguably the area's top sophomore player serving as court general.
L-B repeated its 20-0 regular season and Associated Press
D-III state poll championship, won its 12th Blanchard Valley Conference title since 1991, and will open tournament play with a sectional final at 6:15 tomorrow night against Mohawk
(12-8) at Findlay.
Coach Steve Williman is in his 22nd year as Liberty-Benton's coach. The Eagles' 49-37 non-conference home win against Bluffton on Feb. 2 was his 400th victory at L-B, where his 402-110 (.785) record since starting there in 1986-87 ranks second only to Ed Heintschel 422-112 (.790) of St. John's Jesuit among northwest Ohio boys coaches during that span.
The winning formula created by Williman and his staff is part of the reason an overhauled varsity could match the more experienced 2006-07 team, which was led by Nathan Hyde, state co-player of the year.
The rest of the equation starts with a supremely talented two-sport sophomore athlete -
6-foot-1 guard Aaron Craft - and ends with a group of teammates, who elevated their games during the offseason.
"I wouldn't be truthful if I told you I thought we would finish 20-0," Williman said. "We lost four starters from last year's team but we had some players work hard in the offseason to improve their skills. Many of this year's players are off a successful [18-2] JV team that practiced last year against our varsity on a daily basis. That experience made them better."
Craft, who started along with then-senior brother Brandon Craft last year, has had a start to his prep sports career that few could match.
As a freshman, Aaron Craft was the quarterback for a 12-2 football team that was edged 28-21 in the Division V state semifinals by eventual champion St. Henry. Craft passed for more than 300 yards in the semifinal loss. He then started at point guard as
L-B advanced to the D-III state basketball title game before losing 50-45 to Cincinnati North College Hill, which took its third straight state title.
Last fall, Craft led L-B's football team to a 12-1 finish and No. 3 state ranking before the Eagles fell to Patrick Henry in the D-V regional final. Add in the 20-0 basketball start this year and Craft played a key role on teams that have posted a combined 70-4 record in football and basketball.
"Last year I couldn't have asked for a better group of seniors in football or basketball," Craft said. "They were great. Losing those four [starters] this year was tough. But we all learned a lot from them in practice
everyday. We learned a lot about leadership.
"Andy Smith and I came in this year and just knew we had to take a leadership role, and I think we've done a good job. We'll see how far we can get [in tournament] this year."
On the court this season Craft leads the Eagles at 18.5 points per game, and is the go-to guy in crunch time.
"Aaron is a very gifted athlete," Williman said. "His role changed this year. We've needed him to be more of a scorer. He is a very
unselfish player who gets as much satisfaction from an assist as he does from a score.
"I've always felt the best compliment that can be given to a player is that he makes other players better because of his presence on the court. I think that sums up what Aaron means to our team. Not many players have the ability to step up and take over a game, but he's done that for us at different times this year."
But Craft has gotten plenty of help from his four new starting teammates.
Smith, a 6-2 senior post player is scoring 15.5 points per game, up from his 4.5 average as a varsity sub last year.
Derek Recker, a 6-5 junior wing, adds 10.9 points per game.
"Both Andy and Derek spent a lot of time in the summer working on their game and have stepped up for us,"
Williman said. "It's always nice to see those players rewarded for their hard work by having a good season."
Rounding out the starting lineup are 5-9 senior guard Garret Garcia (4.6 points) and 6-3 junior forward Justin Hyde (3.1 points), the younger brother of Nathan Hyde, who plays at the University of Findlay.
The top subs have been senior Zach Thompson (5.9 points) and junior Scott Wallace (3.3 points).
Like Craft and Hyde, Recker and Smith also had older brothers who played for Williman's
Eagles. T.J. Recker started last year. Matt Recker played through 2004. Adam Smith
finished in 2003.
"Coach Williman kept telling us that we needed to work out in the offseason if we were going to have a successful year," Recker said. "I know Smitty and I were in the gym every day working out. That was the key to our success."
The 20-0 record may match last year's team, but the journey has been much different. The 2006-07 team rolled to numerous one-sided wins (average score 67.1 to 37.3). This year's group has survived several close calls and is topping foes 59.9 to 40.9 per game.
"It's a lot different than last year," Smith said. "Last year we ended up blowing a lot of people out because we had such good offense. This year has been more of a grind-it-out type season with a lot of close finishes.
"It starts with the defense. If your offense isn't there one night and you're playing well defensively, you can always give yourself a chance to win."
L-B opened BVC play with wins over Arcadia (48-43) and Vanlue (45-37), and later in
December had tight nonconference wins over Patrick Henry (57-55) and Elida (52-47 in
"We struggled early in the year with injuries and a late start from football," Williman said. "A number of games weren't pretty, but we found a way to win."
In a pivotal BVC game on Jan. 18, the Eagles never led until two minutes remained in overtime of a 58-54 win at Arlington. In clinching what would be an outright BVC title, L-B survived for a tough 46-41 win over 17-3 Pandora-Gilboa.
"We've practiced tough situations and we always try to be prepared to play," Recker said. "It's the days we're not prepared when we have the close calls. But we've managed to squeak some out at the end."
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