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Last season Eastwood was picked to finish second in the Suburban Lakes League boys basketball standings, and the Eagles (15-6, 11-3 SLL) did just that, finishing one game behind champion Genoa.
This season, second-year coach Todd Henline is hoping the league's coaches are accurate once again when it comes to rating his team's chances.
They were unanimous in their preseason poll, with all eight first-place votes going to the Eagles as title favorites.
Defending champion Genoa (18-5, 12-2), which won the title after being picked to place fourth a year ago, is pegged for second. Elmwood (12-9, 10-4), which was favored to win its fourth straight SLL crown last season, is projected to place where it actually wound up in 2007-08, third.
"It's kind of nice in the fact that the kids earned some respect last year," said Henline, a 1987 Eastwood graduate who played on the Eagles' 19-3 SLL title team his senior year. "But last year we kind of sneaked up and caught some teams by surprise. I don't think we're going to be able to sneak up on anyone this year."
The Eagles are the tallest team in the SLL and will eventually have the services of three returning starters. Back to open this season are 6-0 senior guard
Jason Faykosh and 6-7 junior center Clay Rolf. Mark Schult, a 6-2 senior forward, had minor knee surgery following the football season and is expected to rejoin the team by mid-December.
Eastwood also has three other 6-4 players on the varsity, two of which are currently battling for starting spots.
"We've got that X on our backs now," Henline said, "and we're going to see a lot of teams' best efforts. They're going to be pumped up to play us, and I think the league is going to be real competitive.
"The key for us is how well we jell as a team. We lost our leading scorer [Chad Fairbanks, 13.9 points per game, graduated], so we're going to have to replace that loss. But I think we've got guys who can do that."
Unfortunately for Henline and the Eagles, the early-season schedule is challenging, especially with Schult and returning sub Matt Schlumbohm (ankle) still rehabbing football injuries.
"We open with Napoleon, Elmwood and Genoa, and six of our first 10 games are on the road," Henline said. "So, if we can get off to a good start, that'll be a big factor in how well we do in the league."
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Todd Henline, second season
Last season: 15-6, 11-3 SLL
Top players: Seniors Jason Faykosh, 6-0, G; Mark Schult, 6-2, F; Zach Lawniczak, 5-10, G; Matt Schlumbohm, 6-0, G. Juniors Clay Rolf, 6-7, C; Jon Juergens, 6-4, F; Clayton Ruch, 6-4, W.
Outlook: Rolf, a three-sport star (also football and baseball) at Eastwood, is the likely go-to guy in the frontcourt. He averaged 12 points and 9.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Faykosh (10 points, 3.8 assists) is the chief perimeter threat. Schult (7.6 points, 3.2 boards) provides balance in between. The Eagles title chances, however, may be determined by how much support this trio gets from the rest of the varsity.
Henline is obviously happy with his team's size and experience, and points to versatility as another team strength. His top hopes are improved defensive play and 3-point shooting.
"We really have a nice blend of guys this year with some varsity experience," Henline said. "A real key to our season is how well we gel as a team."
Coach: Jeff Overmyer, ninth season
Last season: 18-5, 12-2
Top players: Seniors Marcus Vicars, 6-1, F; Zach Apel, 5-11, G. Juniors Matt Bassitt, 6-0, G; Richard Wonnell, 6-8, C.
Outlook: The Comets were a surprise SLL champion last season, riding the wave of football success from the 2007 fall season. If they are to repeat as champion, it will likely be because of the leadership of four key members of this most recent 13-1 state-semifinal football team.
Bassitt (7.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists), the Comets' quarterback in football, is the lone returning starter. But Vicars (3.9 points, 3.1 rebounds), Apel (2.8 points) and Wonnell (5.4 points, 4.1 boards) were each contributors to the 2007-08 hoops success after a transition from the gridiron.
Overmyer, the SLL's dean of boys basketball coaches in his ninth season, likes his team's overall athleticism with several three-sport participants, and their collective versatility on the court. Perimeter shooting may pose problems, and the Comets lack experienced depth.
"How quickly the team can transition into basketball condition from football and how well we shoot from the perimeter will determine the success of the team this season," Overmyer said. "We look to build from the success of the last three seasons. We've gone 50-19, and [last season] we had our first SLL title and appearance in the district finals since 1996."
Coach: Ty Traxler, first season
Last season: 12-9, 10-4
Top players: Seniors Thor Bottesch, 6-0, W; Shannon Stewart, 6-2, P. Juniors Reid Rothenbuhler, 5-10, G; Tyler Chamberlain, 6-0, P.
Outlook: Traxler moves up after eight seasons as junior varsity coach under his successful predecessor, Doug Reynolds, who guided the Royals to three straight SLL titles (2005-07). But only one starter, Rothenbuhler (6 points, 4 assists), returns plus three other letterwinners. Chamberlain (5 points, 3 rebounds) is the most experienced new starter.
Traxler sees speed, athleticism and depth as positives entering the season and is most concerned with his team's lack of height and overall varsity experience.
"Although the league will be tough as always," Traxler said, "our goals will be to compete for the league title and to advance in the tournament.
Coach: Brent Liskai, seventh season
Last season: 13-9, 9-5
Top players: Seniors Tony Egbert, 6-5, P-W; T.J. Bowen, 5-9, G. Junior Lee Renner, 6-1, W.
Outlook: The Golden Bears were in the chase for the SLL crown late until losing their last three league games. But Liskai has just one starter and one other letterwinner back from that contending team, so he is facing more of a building situation than a title chase.
Egbert was fifth in the SLL scoring chase last year at 12.3 points per game and also averaged five rebounds.
Liskai likes his squad's perimeter shooting ability and the fact that they play well together. He also acknowledges a lack of depth and overall size that may hinder the Bears' chances. Still, he remains optimistic.
"We should be very competitive," Liskai said.
Coach: Marc Diels, second season
Last season: 6-15, 3-11
Top players: Senior Jacob Smith, 6-3, W. Juniors Dillon Winke, 6-1, G; Jake Wiseman, 6-2, W; Scott Hoffman, 6-8, W; Roger Guerra, 6-1, W.
Outlook: The Raiders, who will be exiting the SLL for the Midland Athletic League after this school year, last won league titles in 1985 and '86, when they took consecutive SLL championships. Those will likely be their last in the SLL, as contending this season will be an uphill battle. Only one starter returns plus two other letterwinners, but Diels points to good guard play and overall quickness as team strengths. Bench depth may pose problems along with the inexperience.
"We made strides in the program last year," Diels said, "and we look to improve even more this year."
Coach: Michael Haar, second season
Last season: 8-14, 5-9
Top players: Seniors Chris Jacobson, 6-3, W; Robert Schumacher, 6-2, G. Junior Justin Garver, 6-1, W.
Outlook: The Wildcats return three players, who all started last season, in their bid to climb in the SLL standings. Jacobson averaged 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, and Schumacher contributed 6.4 points. Haar is also expecting help from several varsity newcomers, including senior Tyler Howell, and juniors Brock Avers and Tyler Donnell.
The coach likes his team's speed and ability to execute the offense. He sees scoring balance and improved physical play as musts and is most concerned with overcoming inexperience.
"Scoring will need to come from everyone and not be focused on one or two players," Haar said. "Without a true post player, the balance will have to come from the ability of every player to have the flexibility to shoot from anywhere on the court."
Coach: Jim Bostdorff, fourth season
Last season: 5-16, 4-10
Top players: Juniors Matt Weisenborn, 5-9, G; Tony Gerwin, 5-10, G.
Outlook: The Knights return two starters plus four other letterwinners. Weisenborn (12.3 points, 4 assists) and Gerwin (5.7 points) make up one the league's top returning backcourts. Bostdorff is comfortable with the talent and depth on the perimeter and sees a more athletic team than a year ago. But a lack of size in the frontcourt may pose problems rebounding and defending the post.
The Knights' last SLL titles came in 2000 and 2001.
"We have a number of hungry, aggressive players we feel can surround our guards," Bostdorff said. "We like our kids' positive energy and effort."
Coach: Jim Scharer, first season
Last season: 4-17, 3-11
Top players: Seniors Anthony Lumbreras, 5-6, G; Alex Geisel, 6-0, G; Kyler Lucas, 6-1, F; Mike Mathews, 6-3, F; Joe Moon, 5-6, G. Junior Alex Cordell, 6-5, F.
Outlook: Lake's revolving door of head basketball coaches has opened once again, as former Owens College coach Jim Welling, moved on to Central Catholic in the City League after one season guiding the Flyers. Welling's successor may be new to Lake but is no stranger to the SLL. He was a longtime assistant at Genoa under former Comets head coach Dan Dippman through the late 1990s. The roles are reversed now, as Dippman will be assisting Scharer.
He inherits three returning starters plus three other letterwinners from a team that struggled a year ago but showed signs of improvement late. Mathews is the top returning scorer at 8.5 points per game.
Scharer lists athleticism, work ethic and solid defensive potential as strengths, but sees a distinct need for improved scoring and team rebounding to make a climb in the SLL standings.
"I am really excited to have the opportunity to return to coaching in the SLL," Scharer said. "I have coached in the league for 14 years. We are going to try to play an up-tempo game that will use our athleticism."