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Irish are preseason favorite in TRAC but football title-run may hamper Central Catholic early

Central Catholic boys basketball coach Jim Welling may not agree with the choice, and he may have a good argument against it, but his colleagues in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference have spoken, and Welling’s Fighting Irish are the preseason favorites to win the 2012-13 conference championship.

The biggest question as the season begins tonight is just when Central will have the players on the court who will have a great deal to do with whether the Irish prove to be TRAC champions or simply close contenders.

That’s because today is also when the Central Catholic football team plays for the Division II state championship against Trotwood-Madison in Massillon, and two of Welling’s starters and top players happen to be 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer and 6-5, 250-pound senior tight end/defensive end Keith Towbridge.

In all, Welling said that 14 current Central football players are expected to join basketball workouts for the first time late next week, with some vying for spots on the varsity team and others on the junior varsity squad.

“No question,” Welling said when asked if being picked first is an honor. “It means we’re respected, and we’re very flattered to be in this position. If they passed out trophies for preseason honors, everything would be simple.

“But basketball is a game where you’ve got to put the time and the work in, and kids have to stay committed to each other. Chemistry is going to be a big part of all this. We’ve got enough experience back that, if they can stay hungry and humble at the same time, hopefully by late in the season we’ll be peaking at the right time.”

Central’s first two schedule games — league contests versus Findlay Dec. 7 and at Clay Dec. 11 — have been postponed with makeup dates still to be determined.

What the Irish will have in place when they open Dec. 14 versus St. Francis de Sales is the veteran trio of starters in seniors Deontae Cole, Cliff (C.J.) Bussey, and junior Nate Harris.

Their presence, along with the eventual installment of Kizer and Towbridge, who was Central’s top scorer and rebounder (11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds) last season, was enough for TRAC coaches to give the Irish a slight nod for the title.

“Those guys are having just a miraculous football season, and having those kinds of kids get adjusted to having the basketball in their hands is going to take some time,” Welling said. “They have to close the deal [win state title], and basketball will be waiting for them when they’re done.”

Central, which was 17-5 overall (11-3 TRAC) last season, received four of the eight first-place votes and 57 voting points to place first in the poll. St. John’s Jesuit (15-7, 11-3) had two first-place nods and 54 points, and last season’s TRAC champions and Division I state runner-up Whitmer (24-3, 12-2) was picked third at 53 points.

St. John’s and veteran coach Ed Heintschel return Ohio State-bound senior forward Marc Loving and Findlay-bound guard Austin Gardner in their quest for a conference title, and veteran coach Bruce Smith’s Whitmer squad has three starters back from its state runner-up run.

Back for the Panthers are 6-7 Wisconsin-bound senior forward Nigel Hayes, and senior guards Ricardo Smith and Luke Hickey. Like St. John’s Gardner, Smith has signed to play at Findlay.

“We’re not going to make the mistake of thinking that last year has any effect at all on this year,” coach Smith said of Whitmer’s chances at a repeat. “That was last year. This is a new team with a new identity.

“We lost tremendous size inside [to graduation], and at the end of the year LeRoy Alexander was as good as any guard in the state. We’re going to go in a different direction obviously because we lost those kids. Expectations are still high, whether that’s fair or unfair

“Nigel’s made a big, big improvement. He’s going to have a big year. The only X-factor you can’t control is health. But he’s much stronger and much more skilled. We feel real good about what he’s going to be able to do.”

As the season gets underway, Heintschel enters his 34th season at St. John’s (589-186 career record) just 11 wins away from the 600 milestone. According to records currently posted by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, only nine boys coaches in the state have 600 or more victories.

Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish.


From left: Nate Harris, Deontae Cole, C.J. Bussey, Keith Towbridge and DeShone Kizer.

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Coach: Jim Welling, fifth season

Last season: 17-5 overall, 11-3 TRAC

Top players: Seniors Keith Towbridge, 6-5, F; Deontae Cole, 6-5, F; Cliff Bussey, 6-1, G. Juniors Nate Harris, 6-6, C; DeShone Kizer, 6-4, F.

Outlook: With four starters and three other letter winners returning from a team that narrowly missed out on the TRAC title last season, the Irish seem well suited for a title.

Size is a plus, and experience a bigger one, with Kizer, Towbridge, Bussey, and Cole all having played on the Central team which reached the D-I state semifinals in 2011.

By season’s end, Central is expected to be a solid tournament team. Some prospects who may add depth include seniors D.J. Moody, Zach Pacer, and Kyle Frazier, along with junior Tom Vetter.

“It’s hard to project,” Welling said of how the late start of the football players will impact the basketball season. “Our non-football kids have had a really good preseason. They’ve worked extremely hard."


Coach: Ed Heintschel, 34th season

Last season: 15-7, 11-3

Top players: Seniors Marc Loving, 6-8, G-F; Austin Gardner, 6-0, G; Tyler Thompson, 6-0, G; Chris Stearns, 6-1, G. Juniors Anthony Glover, 6-0, G; Parker Ernsthausen, 6-8, F; Trevor Walsh, 6-4, F; Geno DeMarco, 6-3, F.

Outlook: Heintschel begins his 34th season just 11 wins shy of 600. He should easily reach that milestone, provided Loving (22 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Gardner (12 ppg, 5.0 assists) lead the way, and Glover (6.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg) steps into his larger role adequately. The Titans are strong on the perimeter, and should be deep. Defending the interior and rebounding are concerns.

“We will be a solid team that needs to stay healthy and develop young, inexperienced players into varsity players,” Heintschel said. “Physical play must become better for us to have team success. Our perimeter play should be strong.”


Coach: Bruce Smith, 22nd season

Last season: 24-3, 12-2

Top players: Seniors Nigel Hayes, 6-7, F; Ricardo Smith, 6-2, G; Luke Hickey, 6-0, G. Junior Jon Ashe, 6-1, G.

Outlook: The good news for the Panthers is that they return three starters from a D-I state runner-up team that was within two minutes of a title holding a lead. One of those returning starters is fourth-year standout Nigel Hayes (14 ppg, 9.0 rpg), whose sterling tournament play was instrumental in getting Whitmer that far. The bad news is the other two starters — superb point guard LeRoy Alexander and 6-8, 260-pound post force Chris Wormley — have graduated and moved on Big Ten football programs.

If Whitmer is to repeat its TRAC title, and make another deep tournament run, some new faces must emerge and try to fill that deep void.

One strength is the core group’s big-game experience, while Smith points to settling on an effective point guard, and finding reliable perimeter shooting, as chief concerns.

“We’re definitely going to do some different things,” coach Smith said. “We also believe that the three kids returning have a skill set that has improved greatly from a year ago. We’re going to be more explosive offensively, and I think we’re going to be deeper. We’re just not going to be quite as big. We have to develop 4, 5 and 6, because I don’t think you can make that [state] run with three guys. The guys coming from football are going to have to make a contribution, and Jon Ashe is going to have to do something for us."


Coach: Jim Rucki, 14th season

Last season: 16-6, 10-4

Top players: Senior Joseph Davidson, 6-7, P. Juniors Austin Gutting, 6-3, P; Adam Twining 6-3, W; Michael Clark, 6-1, G.

Outlook: First and foremost, the Trojans must fill the graduation void left by 6-11 center C.J. Gettys, who averaged 20.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, and was a force in the post for three seasons.

Findlay has decent size, led by Davidson (5.5 rpg), and returns three other letter winners, but is still a young team and will need to find some consistent scoring sources to contend. Rucki needs three wins to hit No. 200 at Findlay.


Coach: Mark Gedeon, 18th season

Last season: 11-11, 6-8

Top players: Seniors Alex Metcalf, 6-0, G; Drew Straks, 6-0, G; Dylan Starks, 6-0, G. Juniors Jack Gedeon, 6-4, G; Drew Solander, 6-3, P; Jarvis Jones, 6-5, P.

Outlook: The Little Giants return no full-time starters, although Metcalf (4.8 ppg) and Drew Starks (3.5 ppg) did start before injuries last season. Dylan Starks is the team’s best defender, and Jack Gedeon was the top shot blocker in 2011-12. This guard-heavy roster will have to find a way to rebound and defend inside to compete with the top teams. Finding reliable scoring sources will also be a challenge for Gedeon, who opens the year one win from 200 at Fremont.

“You can expect the Little Giants to again play extremely hard and play a team oriented style of basketball,” Gedeon said. “We will need everyone to contribute in order to be successful on offense. The strength of the team will be the defensive rotation of the guards."


Coach: Shawn Allen, sixth season

Last season: 3-18, 2-12

Top players: Seniors Devon Allen, 6-0, G; Isiah Simpson, 6-0, G. Juniors Trey Gunn, 6-3, F; Brady Allen, 5-9, G; Dejon Gibson, 5-8, G; Malik Bingman, 6-3, F; Justice Graham, 6-9, P.

Outlook: The Spartans dipped in their first season in the TRAC, and hope to bounce back and make a climb this season. Lacking experience and size, however, any climb is not likely to be a big one. It will rely on quickness to compete, and will count heavily on the only returning starters, Devon Allen and Simpson.

“We have eight other players who have no varsity experience," Allen said. "We will be bigger than previous years and will look to capitalize on our speed and size."


Coach: Rob Belegrin, fourth season

Last season: 5-16, 2-12

Top players: Seniors Jack Nagy, 6-1, G; James DeMeo, 5-8, G; Dexter Williams, 5-10, G. Juniors Patricc Booth, 6-1, G; Anthony Ramirez, 6-2, G.

Outlook: The Eagles must fill the graduation void left by Ross Achter (14 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Collin Carter, but Booth (14.8 ppg) returns to the starting lineup along with Nagy (10.8 ppg) and DeMeo (3.2 apg, 3 ppg) to lead the way. Belegrin is optimistic about his guard play and is counting on team quickness as a strength. A lack of depth and overall size may be trouble areas.

“This is the closest and hardest working team I’ve had,” Belegrin said. “We have solid quickness, and return key players with experience. We need to focus on rebounding the ball in order to succeed.”


Coach: Travis Lewis, first season

Last season: 2-19, 2-12

Top players: Senior Jay Snell, 6-5, F. Juniors Curtis Smith, 5-9, G; David Jones, 5-7, G; Mark Beauch, 5-9, G; Jon Fankhauser, 6-4, F.

Outlook: Lewis begins his first season as Knights coach with a tall task in front of him. St. Francis struggled to one of its worst seasons ever in 2011-12, and returns no starters and only three letter winners to the varsity roster.

There is basically no place to go but up for Lewis, who likes the unselfish play of his Knights in the preseason. His top concerns are major ones — scoring and rebounding. To keep things competitive in TRAC contests, St. Francis will have to rely on fundamentals and defensive effort.

“We’ll have to practice like it’s a game and play the game like it’s our last,” Lewis said. “If we do this we will be fine. This means every player is exerting 110 percent of their efforts.”

Contact Steve Junga at: or 419-724-6461.


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