At first glance, it seems as if the top contenders in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference boys basketball race are the same as last season. The favorites to win this year's title are last year's co-champions, Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills.
But appearances may be deceiving.
Both the Eagles and Green Bears suffered big graduation losses. And the emphasis is on the word "big." Toledo Christian is without 6-7 Ethan Michael, an Air Force recruit who was named All-Ohio second team in Division IV, while the Green Bears lost 6-8 Phillip Beans, who signed with Holy Cross after being named All-Ohio second team in Division III.
Yet, TC was picked first in a preseason poll of the league's coaches, followed by Ottawa Hills, Maumee Valley and Danbury.
"We lost five starters, so some of that [vote] is a tribute to the depth of our program," said Toledo Christian coach Dave McWhinnie, whose team narrowly earned the favorite's nod over Ottawa Hills. "Our junior varsity last year was strong, and our young players are strong players and good athletes."
The coaches of the two favorites both know their competition won't just come from one school.
"I truly believe it's going to be a wide open league this year," Ottawa Hills coach John Lindsay said. "I believe one team that will close the gap is Maumee Valley.
"They have an outstanding guard returning in Carter Bayer, and they'll have good size returning. And with Jim Robinson as the coach they will be well-coached and well-prepared."
McWhinnie agreed, adding, "I do think there are some great coaches who do some good things with their programs. I expect the entire league to be competitive."
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Dave McWhinnie, ninth season
Last season: 18-7 overall, 11-1 TAAC
Top players: Seniors Brad Fox, 6-0, F; Ryan Huffman, 6-0, G. Nick Rightnowar, 5-11, G; Jeremy Weemes, 6-2, F; Josh Whitlow, 5-9, G.
Outlook: The Eagles lost all five starters from a team that advanced to the regionals, a group led by Michael and his 17.4 points and league-high 12.1 rebounds a game. Other losses include first-team choice Grant Sims (13.0 ppg) and second team pick Jake Rightnowar.
TC does return some bench players from that successful squad, a group led by Weemes (6.5 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game), Nick Rightnowar (3.2 ppg) and Fox (3.5 ppg).
"We're going to have to use our athletes to wear people down," McWhinnie said. "We're going to play eight kids and pick up [on defense] full-court until the game is decided. We plan to pressure the ball and run all over the court."
Coach: John Lindsay, 15th season
Last season: 20-3, 11-1
Top players: Seniors Eliot Browarsky, 6-0, G; Jon Shollenberger, 6-0, F. Junior J.J. Buckey, 6-1, G.
Outlook: The Green Bears do have three starters and five lettermen back, but the biggest loss was Beans, who averaged a league-best 22.1 points per game while added 10.8 rebounds per contest. As a result, rebounding is a concern.
Browarsky is back after averaging 13 points, 7.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game a year ago; those numbers were good enough to earn a berth on the All-TAAC first team. His return, along with Buckey, makes team speed and perimeter play the squad's strengths.
"Our success will be determined by how quickly we learn how to play without Phillip in the post," Lindsay said. "I believe our work ethic will determine our success; we'll need to do things on the floor defensively that require work ethic and toughness."
Coach: Jim Robinson, second season
Last season: 4-16, 1-10
Top players: Seniors Carter Bayer, 5-11, G; Henry Beausejour, 6-3, F; Jangus Whitner, 6-4, C. Sophomores Ricky Deichert, 5-11, G; Jared Sturt, 6-6, C.
Outlook: The Hawks have a chance to make big improvements from last season thanks to the return of six lettermen, but only two starters are back.
One of those is Bayer, a second team All-TAAC performer last year who averaged 12.9 points per game. Maumee Valley also should get good play from a tall frontcourt that includes five players who stand 6-2 or taller, a group led by Whitner and his 8.0 rebounds per game.
"We will be better this year," Robinson promised. "I think that, potentially, we could beat anyone on our schedule. But we must shoot better [than last year] and play solid defense."
Coach: Joe Miller, eighth season
Last season: 12-10, 6-6
Top players: Seniors Tyler Boring, 6-8, C; Steven Feyedelem, 5-10, F; Nathan Hartman, 6-0, F-C; Rodney Johnson, 5-11, F; Vince Manuella, 5-10, G. Junior Hunter Stephens, 6-4, C.
Outlook: The Lakers return one of the league's most experienced squads, as four starters and six lettermen are back. The biggest graduation loss was Michael Hamann, a third-team all-district performer last year.
Danbury should have one of the tallest teams in the area thanks to the 6-8 Boring and 6-4 Stephens, while Manuella is a two-year starter that combines with Johnson, a second-team all-league pick, to anchor the backcourt.
"This could be a very good season if our team continues to improve defensively and with our perimeter shooting," Miller said. "Our inside game should be a plus, and our team depth is much improved over last year."
Coach: Matt Donegan, first season
Last season: 6-14, 3-8
Top players: Senior Ryan Canaday, 6-2, G-F. Juniors David Green, 6-4, F; John Romstadt, 5-8, G; Zack Wielinski, 6-3, G-F. Sophomore Ricky Hartley, 6-2, F.
Outlook: The Rangers return just one starter for their new coach in Canaday, who averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds per game a year ago to earn second team all-league honors.
But Canaday is the only senior on the roster, which also includes just three juniors. And one of those juniors, point guard Romstadt, has been hurt early in this season.
"I think we have guys who can attack and put pressure on defenses, and we have good size," Donegan said. "But experience is our biggest question. We will be playing a lot of younger players, and that will benefit the program in the long run."
Coach: Jim Sheehy, eighth season
Last season: 12-10, 8-4
Top players: Seniors Jonathan Kelly, 5-10, G; Zack Rodriguez, 6-2, F. Juniors Matt Guy, 5-9, G; Justin Staler, 6-0, G. Sophomores Michael Blazevich, 5-11, G; Kyle Hatfield, 6-3, C.
Outlook: Few teams were hit as hard by graduation as the Cardinals, who return only one starter and two lettermen.
But Stritch does have a good base upon which to build thanks to the return of Staler, the team's leading scorer last season with his average of 10.1 points per game.
The Cards won't be tall, with no one on the roster taller than 6-3. But their key will be good guard play that takes advantage of the squad's quickness and good outside shooting.
"Yes, as a whole we will be young and inexperienced," Sheehy said. "But I believe our work ethic and attitude will be plusses for our team."
Coach: Dave Regnier, 19th season
Last season: 1-11, 3-17
Top players: Juniors Tony Behan, 5-10, G; Michael Henning, 5-11, G; Matt Nagle, 5-11, F; Caleb Smith, 6-1, F. Sophomore Julius Turner, 5-11, G.
Outlook: The Warriors return five lettermen, but only two starters, from last season. Complicating matters is a roster that doesn't have a senior on it.
Behan, a second team all-TAAC pick who averaged 12.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, is a key returnee. Smith (8.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Turner (8.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg) also have extensive experience.
While EC should get good guard play, questions focus on its frontcourt, which doesn't have a player taller than 6-1. "I think we can be more competitive this season than last," Regnier said. "We will need to stay healthy and rebound better than last year to be successful."