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Evergreen coach Jerry Keifer was surprised to find out his team was voted as the favorite to win the Northwest Ohio Athletic League boys basketball title this year.
"I'm shocked," Keifer said. "Archbold has a lot coming back, I see both Wauseon and Bryan as being very good, and Delta is a real sleeper.
"Patrick Henry will be improved, and Liberty Center will be improved. A lot of teams have a lot of players back who were playing well at the end of last season."
But count Evergreen, which shared last year's league title with Bryan, among those teams with a number of key players returning. While the Vikings lost 6-foot-9 all-league pick Brock Bates, they do return three starters and six letter winners from a year ago.
"That's true, but things aren't as easy when you're playing without a player who is 6-9," Keifer said. "Your zone defense isn't as good without that big player, and you don't have an automatic scoring option in the low post."
Keifer said there's one trait this year's league champ is certain to exhibit: consistency.
"You can't beat Wauseon, then turn around and lose to Archbold," he said. "You have to play consistently in all eight [league] games. It wouldn't surprise me if the league champ has at least one loss."
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Jerry Keifer, 17th season
Last season: 17-5 overall, 7-1 NWOAL
Top players: Seniors Jackson Langenderfer, 6-1, G; Mason Langenderfer, 6-1, G; Chad Mossing, 6-3, F; Ryan Salsbury, 5-11, G. Junior Lucas Pennington, 6-5, C. Sophomore Clayton Wielinski, 5-11, G.
Outlook: Bates was a low-post presence who earned all-league and all-district honors by averaging 16.1 points and 11.0 rebounds. But Bates wasn't the only standout on last season's NWOAL co-champs.
Mossing also earned All-NWOAL honors after scoring 16.4 points, while Pennington was a second-team league pick who added 8.2 points.
Experience also will be a plus, as all six returning letter winners saw extensive minutes last season.
"I think this year we'll be a faster team, and we'll try to counter the loss in height by being a quicker team," Keifer said. "But for the last couple of years we have had a 6-9 kid do most of the rebounding, so rebounding is a concern."
Coach: Doug Krauss, 25th season
Last season: 13-10, 6-2
Top players: Seniors Christian Goering, 5-11, F; Micah McQuillin, 6-3, C; Sam Miller, 6-1, G; Drew Smith, 6-2, C; Collin Walker, 5-11, F; Corey Walker, 5-11, F. Juniors Telly Fricke, 5-10, G; Garrett Morton, 6-2, F.
Outlook: While the Blue Streaks lost first-team All-NWOAL performer David Rupp, eight letter winners are back, and all have had experience starting at some point in their careers. What's more, reinforcements will come from a JV squad that was 19-1 last year.
Fricke earned second-team league honors as a sophomore and returns at the point. He leads a team that hopes to use its speed and quickness to be aggressive both on offense and defense.
"Last year's team made great strides throughout the season - at the half-way point, we were 4-6," Krauss said. "But this year we'll be as good as our defense."
Coach: Doug Billman, fourth season
Last season: 11-10, 7-1
Top players: Senior Alex Nossaman, 6-3, F. Juniors Caleb Turnbull, 6-2, F; Matt Wisler, 6-2, F.
Outlook: The Golden Bears took a hit from graduation and transfers, losing five players who combined for 12 varsity letters and helped lead the team to a share of last year's league title.
The return of Nossaman, who averaged 8.3 points as a sophomore but missed last season, will help. But the Golden Bears will need to use their speed, quickness and athleticism to overcome a roster that doesn't include a player taller than 6-3.
"We will need to find some consistency offensively, and continue to get better every day," Billman said. "I think our leadership and work ethic are strengths, and we need to continue that through the season to be successful."
Coach: Cory Sprow, eighth season
Last season: 6-16, 3-5
Top players: Seniors Nate Jackson, 5-11, G-F; Jeremy Navarro, 6-1, G; Jordan Turner, 6-1, G. Juniors Josh Beverly, 6-2, G; Drew Salsbury, 6-2, F. Sophomores Ryan Callahan, 6-3, F; Blake Green, 6-4, F.
Outlook: While the Panthers lost a trio of letter winners from last year's fifth-place team, seven players return with experience. Even better, the depth is spread out through all three grades as well as all of the positions on the court.
Leading the way is Jackson, a second-team all-league pick who averaged 12.0 points and 6.6 rebounds . Turner, added 10.1 points and 4.1 rebounds, and Beverly had 10.2 points and 3.4 rebounds.
"We bring back a lot of experience, and we should be deep at every position," Sprow said. "We hope that last year's experience pays off this year."
Coach: Chad Burt, second season
Last season: 12-9, 5-3
Top players: Seniors J.D. Douglass, 6-1, F; Tyler Hinkle, 6-2, C; Colt Humbert, 6-4, C.
Outlook: The Indians only have three letter winners back, but that trio includes first-team All-NWOAL choice Hinkle, who averaged 16 points and eight rebounds. Humbert, who added eight points and five rebounds, gives the Tribe a solid 1-2 punch in the pivot.
But Wauseon will be young, with only three seniors on the roster. And the returnees don't include anyone with much experience at the guard position.
"Overall, we have very little experience competing at the varsity level," Burt said. "Our perimeter players are very inexperienced and will need to adjust to the speed of the game quickly - and be able to add some scoring punch."
Coach: Kent Seemann, fourth season
Last season: 6-16, 4-4
Top players: Seniors Cole Behrman, 6-0, G; Aaron George, 6-0, G; Joe Imbrock, 5-10, G; Blaine Schwiebert, 6-0, G. Juniors Josh Almanza, 6-0, G; Kent Tietje, 6-4, C; Brett Yungmann, 6-2, G-F. Sophomore Shane Bostelman, 6-3, C.
Outlook: The Patriots lost four letter winners from last season but return several key players, including Tietje (6.5 points), George (5.7 points) and Almanza (4.7 points).
PH should be especially strong on the front line, with good size and experience returning. Tietje and Bostelman both lettered last season, while Yungmann should provide depth.
"Having some players back that gained valuable experience last season should be a strength," Seemann said. "But we will need to develop some consistent outside scoring and stay focused on the defensive end of the floor to be successful."
Coach: Eric Prigge, second season
Last season: 2-19, 1-7
Top players: Senior Tyler Johnson, 6-3, C. Juniors Tyler Smiddy, 5-11, F; Michael Poignon, 5-8, G; Dylan Slee, 5-9, G; Phil Snow, 6-2, F-C.
Outlook: The Tigers will be young and inexperienced, with only two letter winners - juniors Smiddy and Poignon - and just two seniors on the roster. Among those lost to graduation was Patrick Brown, an all-league pick a year ago.
Size also is a concern for LC, whose nine-man roster includes just four players 6-foot or taller and no one who stands taller than 6-3.
"We will be looking for our defense to keep us in games early in the season as our offense evolves and roles are established," Prigge said. "Our guard play should be an early strength while we work to develop a consistent post presence."
Coach: Matt Smith, second season
Last season: 6-15, 2-6
Top players: Seniors Matt Barker, 6-2, C; Ryan Johnson, 6-1, F; Louis Miller, 5-7, G. Juniors Shane Bloom, 5-7, G; Jerred Peabody, 6-1, F. Sophomore Travis Hilton, 6-1, F.
Outlook: The Bulldogs also were hit hard by graduation, returning only one starter and three letter winners from last season. The losses include Chad Lewis, a first-team all-league pick who led the NWOAL in scoring with 18.8 points while adding 11.7 rebounds.
The foundation for this season's squad is Johnson, who averaged 10.0 points. The team's focus will be on using its speed and good outside shooting to overcome a lack of height, as no one on the roster stands taller than 6-2.
"If we don't box out, we will have trouble competing in the league," Smith said. "We need our young players to step up and contribute right away."
Coach: Jason Selhorst, first season
Last season: 1-20, 1-7
Top players: Juniors Keagan Hartsock, 5-10, G; Chris Hephner, 6-6, C. Sophomores Dalton Buchanan, 6-1, F.
Outlook: The Locomotives lost all of their starters from last season and Hephner is the program's only returning letterwinner. What's more, Montpelier has only two seniors on the varsity roster, which includes five sophomores.
So the Locos will be young, and Selhorst - the program's third coach in as many seasons - said he is looking for players to step up as both team leaders and key performers.
"We're going to play extremely hard," Selhorst said.
"We know there's a difference between saying you are going to play hard and actually doing it. But we know that if we play hard and bust our tails every day, good things are going to happen."