If you're a fan of parity and the end-of-the-season drama that it can produce, the City League boys basketball chase promises to be right up your alley.
Yes, there is a preseason favorite, mainly because the league's 12 coaches' poll had to produce one.
In this case, defending champion St. John's Jesuit got the nod, most likely because the Titans went 20-6 (9-2 CL) last season and reached the Division I state semifinals.
It also doesn't hurt that the Titans' Ed Heintschel, the dean of CL coaches, enters his 31st season with a 535-171 career record that includes 12 City championships, 12 district titles, and six trips to the state final four. Heintschel's
"been-there-done-that" reputation could have influenced his counterparts' prognostications, and it helps that St. John's returns what is arguably the league's most skilled and experienced guard duo in senior Jay Springs and junior Cheatham Norrils, both third-year starters.
"They bring a lot of different abilities, and both are just great athletes who can get to the rim and break down defenses," Heintschel said
Beyond that, Heintschel was left scratching his trademark salt-and-pepper mane when he learned his Titans were picked No. 1.
Afterall, St. John's graduated the CL's 2009 player of the year, Michael Taylor, a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, along with two other three-year varsity fixtures in the frontcourt, Tim Simmons and Tim Kynard. Their combined inside play was pivotal in the Titans' tourney run.
"It doesn't make sense to me at all," Heintschel said of the vote. "We lost six kids, all who played, and four of our post guys. If we were in a 6-3 and under league, we'd be in good shape. But our post people are undersized and inexperienced, and it's going to be a huge problem for us.
"Our perimeter is pretty good, but there's a lot of [CL] teams with good perimeters. Look at St. Francis and Waite and Central and, gosh, Libbey has everybody back. I don't know what that means to the people who picked us, but hopefully it'll work out for us. Hopefully our guys will step up and make it work for them. But there's no way, on paper, that we should be picked."
If it helps any with Heintschel's sense of logic, St. John's favorite's label was anything but a ringing endorsement. Five different schools garnered at least one first-place vote from an obviously undecided coaching pool, which cast less than half (five) of those first-place nods to the Titans.
Libbey, which was picked to finish second, took three No. 1 votes, and St. Francis de Sales, which was tabbed for third, claimed two first-place picks.
Both of these teams, neither of which reached the CL's four-team playoffs last year, have more returning starters and total letterwinners than St. John's. Libbey, a sophomore-dominated team a year ago, hit stride late and reached the Division II district finals. The Cowboys (9-13, 4-7) return four starters, as does St. Francis (11-9, 6-5), which brings back 6-11 post presence Storm Stanley as one of them.
"I agree with the voting," said second-year Libbey coach Keith McClure, whose team should be led by 6-3 junior guards Maurice Taylor and Delvin Williams. "You have St. John's with their experienced backcourt, and Ed Heintschel's always going to have them ready to go. You have to put them up there.
"Waite brings everybody back but two players, so you have to put them up there. Whitmer returns a lot of good juniors, and you have to respect St. Francis. They're returning three or four starters. So, it's balanced. It's up for grabs."
Ninth-year St. Francis coach Nick Lowe also sees the balance.
"Just about every year there's a clear-cut favorite and then everybody else is kind of chasing that one team," Lowe said "I feel, this year, that there's seven or eight teams vying for four spots without a head-and-shoulders, above-everybody-else favorite. It's a wide-open race for the four spots to have an opportunity to win our league.
"In past years it's been the [William] Buford Libbeys and the St. John's teams that were the class of the league, and everyone else was kind of chasing them. This year there's much more parity. Our biggest strength will be our team chemistry and our willingness to leave our egos at the door and play for one common goal, and that's team. That's the biggest attribute we bring to the table this year."
The list of potential champions doesn't stop there, as Waite (14-5), which was slotted to finish fourth, returns three starters and three others who saw significant playing time a year ago when the Indians posted a first-place 10-1 league record.
"It's going to be a battle night in and night out," Waite coach Dave Pitsenbarger said. "Everybody's got some key players that bring back a lot of experience, and there seems to be some good size around the league. There are going to be some tough matchups and some battles.
"This is my ninth year as a varsity coach and I've been around [the CL] for over 20 years, and this is the most balance I've seen. There's no real clear-cut winner. It's going to depend on who comes to play, the matchups size-wise and quickness-wise, and either who's on that night or who's at home. The final four could be decided in the last week."
Waite's marquee returnees are the inside-outside duo of sharpshooting junior guard Ke-Sean Harris (15.8 points) and 6-6 senior forward Antonio Allen (8.9 points, 9.1 rebounds). They must offset the graduation loss of 2009 all-
district first-teamer Darius Glover (18.6 points, 9.3 rebounds) for the Tribe to claim its third straight CL playoff berth.
Further clouding the potential playoff picture are the Start Spartans (14-7, 8-3), who arguably have the CL's top returning individual player in senior guard Anthony Henderson (22.1 points), and their Tremainsville Road rival, Whitmer. Each received one first-place nod and they were voted to place seventh and fifth, respectively.
The Spartans reached their first CL playoff since 1997 last season, and the Panthers (5-16, 3-8) are only a year removed from their D-I state semifinal run in 2008. Whitmer's potential as a contender centers around its sizable top six, a group that includes 6-5, 240-pound football All-Ohioan Kenny Hayes (13.7 points, 7.9 rebounds last year), a second-team All-City selection as a sophomore.
But Hayes, who has committed to Ohio State for football as a defensive end, may likely be only the second best member of his own family in coach Bruce Smith's lineup this season.
Younger brother Nigel (6-6, 210 pounds) is regarded as one of Ohio's top incoming freshman talents along with his three-year AAU teammate, Marc Loving, a 6-7 guard-forward who will join the St. John's lineup this season. The buzz around town is that this talented pair could eventually be included on the list of Toledo's all-time best high school players, another tantalizing reason to attend City League basketball games this winter.
In between Whitmer and Start in the preseason voting was Central Catholic (14-8, 8-3), which returns a respectable core of players from its City runner-up squad of a year ago for second-year head coach Jim Welling, the former highly successful Owens Community College skipper.
If you think the list stops there, guess again.
Third-year Rogers coach Earl Morris has two key starters - junior guard Damond Powell and senior forward Quincey Caldwell - from a Rams team that narrowly missed the CL playoffs in a tie-breaker with Central and Start, but finished with a 17-5 overall mark after a loss in the D-I district final to St. John's, which the Rams had defeated during league play.
Finally, although it doesn't seem to make sense on paper, it will be hard to count out longstanding City League power Scott and highly successful veteran coach Joe Suboticki, who is 467-208 overall, including 70-37 through his first five seasons guiding the Bulldogs. Scott (7-14, 4-7) which had 10 seniors last season, does not return a single letter winner from a year ago. But league coaches whose players competed against the rebuilding Bulldogs in summer-league games, saw plenty of potential in this completely revamped group.
The Bulldogs and Rams were slotted at Nos. 8 and 9, respectively, in the poll, but cannot be counted out as playoff contenders.
"The teams that do make it will be the ones that are mentally prepared to play every night in the league, and avoid those nights where they're not ready to play," Lowe said. "The teams that will be there at the end will be the ones that can focus 11 times and get the most out of every City League game."
So, strap in and get set for a bumpy but interesting ride toward the Feb. 23-25 City playoffs.
The next biggest challenge, after guessing who might make the playoffs or win the championship, will be voting on the All-City team at season's end. That might be a more contentious battle than the court duels.
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