As the 2012 high school boys basketball season tips off tonight, Toledo-area fans have a rare opportunity to watch talent on par with some of the best ever produced on the local front.
The talent pool this deep, and it may be a while before it is experienced again.
The focus is on the Big Six from the Class of 2013, players who gained heavy college recruiting interest ever since they joined their varsity teams as freshmen three years ago.
Five of the six have signed to play at Division I programs, including four at top programs in the Big Ten. The sixth will pursue baseball.
Nigel Hayes of Whitmer, who led the Panthers to the Division I championship game last March, has signed to play at Wisconsin, as has Bowling Green’s Vitto Brown.
Marc Loving of St. John’s Jesuit, who commited to Ohio State after his freshman season in 2010, signed with the Buckeyes earlier this month.
Mark Donnal of Anthony Wayne, who chose Michigan prior to his junior season, signed with the Wolverines a few weeks back.
Jordan Lauf, who led Napoleon to a Northern Lakes League championship last season — over Brown’s BG team and Donnal’s AW squad — will play at the University of Toledo.
The most explosive player in this 2013 group is Bedford’s Jackson Lamb, who passed on offers from Toledo, Ohio University, and Akron, among others, to accept a baseball scholarship to Michigan, where he is coveted as a hard-throwing pitcher and a top-level center fielder and hitter.
“There have been at least a couple pockets of outstanding players in this area,” said St. John’s coach Ed Heintschel, whose career began as a Titans freshman coach during the mid-1970s. “But I think this group has more depth and size than any other.
“Toledo has had few big men over the years. It’s been a very guard-oriented area. This particular group has tremendous size as well as skill.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better class,” said Central Catholic coach and former Owens Community College coach Jim Welling. “And, there’s a bunch of other kids who don’t hardly ever get mentioned outside that big six.
“There’s two players at Rogers, and C.J. Bussey, and Keith Towbridge, and Deontae Cole here. It’s the best class I’ve seen around Toledo for a long time.”
On the fringe of this six-player super group are some other highly talented local players, including Rogers’ 1-2 guard punch of Clemmye Owens and Tony Kynard, who each signed to play at Bethune Cookman.
Central Catholic, which was picked to win the highly competitive Three Rivers Athletic Conference this season, features forward Keith Towbridge, who will play football as a tight end recruit at Louisville, and Deontae Cole, who has signed to play basketball at Northern Kentucky.
Others on this talented “fringe” include guards Austin Gardner of St. John’s and Ricardo Smith of Whitmer, who will each play at Division II power Findlay.
As for the Big Six, what makes them unusual as a group is that they are all, literally, big.
Loving, a 6-8 guard-forward, brings the offensive double-edged sword of a 3-point marksman also adept at driving the lane or baselines. He was an All-Ohio Division I co-player of the year last season, averaging 22.9 points and 9.0 rebounds. He enters his senior season with 1,191 career points and 518 rebounds.
“There are few kids around with the height Marc has with the skill set he possesses,” Heintschel said. “He has remarkable ball-handling and passing ability. He is a scorer, and still has ability to make his teammates better through his passing and unselfishness.”
Hayes is a 6-7 forward who has twice been named second-team All-Ohio, and enters his senior season after having driven the Panthers to the brink of a state title. He has 994 points, 475 rebounds, and 114 blocked shots through three seasons.
“Nigel has made tremendous strides since a year ago,” Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. “He is a much improved player from his junior year, and the things that set him apart are his relentless work habits and his unselfish ability to make all those players around him better.
“His leadership has inspired and elevated the play of our entire program.”
Donnal, a 6-9 forward-center with perimeter shooting range, averaged 19.6 points and 9.2 rebounds last season en route to All-Ohio third-team honors in Division I. He enters the 2012 season with 890 career points and 420 rebounds.
“Mark has the ability to score in the post, and also is a threat from the perimeter,” AW coach Bryan Borcherdt said. “Mark is a defensive threat at the basket, and also has worked hard to be able to guard people on the perimeter.
“He is also a tremendous rebounder and, when the game is on the line, he is one of my guys I want on the free throw line.”
Brown, a 6-7 power forward, just scratched the surface his first two seasons as a rebounder and shot blocker at BG before breaking out to average 19.2 points and 11.9 rebounds last season to earn All-Ohio special mention honors in Division II. Viewed as having a big upside, Brown enters his senior season with 593 career points, 484 rebounds and 239 blocked shots.
“Vitto is starting to figure things out, and his emotional maturation is helping his game by leaps and bounds,” BG coach Von Graffin said. “He just turned 17 in July, and he has really put in some time to make his game better.
“He has a soft touch from the perimeter, and when he gets in the post he is very good around the basket. His body is still growing and he will fill out his frame in the next couple years.”
Lauf, a 6-5 junior forward, is the best Napoleon talent since Tim Reiser and Barry Sonnenberg starred for the Wildcats in the early 1980s. He earned second-team All-Ohio honors last season after averaging 21.9 points and 9.6 rebounds, and enters his senior season with 1,153 career points and 472 rebounds.
“Jordan has the ability to play all five positions on the floor for us,” Napoleon coach Tim Badenhop said. “He has the inside moves of a post player, can take you outside, and hit the long range jumper, and also is able to bring the ball up the floor against pressure.”
Lamb, a high-flying 6-6 forward with a highlight reel full of slam dunks, earned first-team Class A all-state honors in Michigan after leading the Kicking Mules to the regional finals and the best record (18-6) in school history. He averaged 21.8 points and 10 rebounds, and enters his senior season with 1,328 career points, 650 rebounds and 140 blocked shots.
“Things that make Jackson a standout are his athleticism, his versatility, his drive, and his demeanor,” Bedford coach Nick Lowe said.
But baseball is considered Lamb’s better sport, and he accepted a scholarship to play at Michigan.
Hitting over .500 combined for the last two seasons with 11 home runs, he has been twice named first-team Division 1 all-state as a superb defensive center fielder and an ace right-handed pitcher with a fast ball in the low to mid 90s.
Taking a look back at the history of the high school game in Toledo and its neighboring communities, the standard for great talent pools was arguably set in the mid-1970s.
That’s when players like Truman Claytor and Donald Collins of Scott, Kelvin Ransey and John Flowers of Macomber, Terry Crosby and Farley Bell of DeVilbiss, and Kim Leonard and Kenny Cunningham of Rogers all competed in Toledo’s City League at the same time (1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons).
For some members of this memorable group, their true greatness was better measured in what they accomplished beyond their fabulous prep careers.
Claytor was a starting guard on Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA championship team. Collins became a Pacific Coast Conference player of the year at Washington State before playing in the NBA.
Ransey was an All-American on a top-ranked Ohio State team and later played in the NBA. Flowers, who closed his career at Southview, would return from a devastating work-related injury to become the college comeback player of the year while at Bowling Green.
Crosby, who was a better football player recruited from coast to coast in that sport, became a top-notch guard his final two seasons at Tennessee. His teammate, Bell, played football at Ohio State and later Cincinnati.
Although personal troubles ultimately stalled Leonard’s college career at Ohio University, his Rogers teammate, Cunningham, hit stride at Western Michigan, where he became a Mid-American Conference scoring champion and was selected in the NBA draft.
“I remember those guys [Claytor, Collins, Crosby, Ransey, etc],” Welling said. “They were great. And this class ranks right up there at No. 1 or 2. “Toledo should be proud of the basketball that’s going to be played this year. This kind of talent around northwest Ohio may not come back again for a while. It’s as good as we’ve seen since those [mid 1970s] days.”
Since the mid-1970s, there have been some other notable talent clusters in the Toledo area.
One that rivaled the mid-1970s group was a mid 1980s contingent that included Bowsher’s Dennis Hopson (Ohio State All-American, NBA), Todd Mitchell (Purdue, NBA) and Shawn Reid (Furman) of 1983 state-champion St. Francis de Sales, Macomber guard Clinton Ransey (Cleveland State), Rogers guard Eric Newsome (Miami, Ohio), and Scott stars Melvin Newbern (Minnesota and NBA) and Chris Poellnitz (Toledo).
And, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, there was a group highlighted by Jim Jackson (Ohio State, 14 NBA seasons) and teammate Donnie Dobbs (Saint Louis) of Macomber’s 1989 state-championship team, Scott standouts Anthony “Scoop” Williams, Calvin White, and Sean Scrutchins (all UT) from the Bulldogs’ 1990 state champions, St. John’s John Amaechi (Penn State, NBA), and Shane Komives (Bowling Green), and Waite’s Craig Thames (Toledo).
It remains to be seen what the Big Six and its fringe of 2013 will produce this season, and their college careers. But, no past group has had as many Division I college scholarships locked up before stepping on the court as seniors.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.