TONTOGANY — The last time Otsego was within striking range of a boys basketball league championship was Feb. 27, 2009.
That night, A.C. Limes was a 160-pound freshman post player who had just grabbed a defensive rebound with 20 seconds to play in a 55-55 tie against visiting Eastwood.
Limes’ grip on that rebound — and the Knights’ chance at Suburban Lakes League co-championship — were short-lived.
Eastwood’s 6-foot-6 center, Clay Rolf, stole the ball from Limes’ grasp, turned, and delivered a slam dunk. When Otsego’s last possession went scoreless, Eastwood had won the SLL with an 11-1 record, and the Knights closed at 9-3.
Neither Limes nor eighth-year Otsego coach Jim Bostdorff have completely erased that unpleasant memory. Three years later, however, they are on the brink of ending a 12-year title drought.
“I can almost sleep nights now,” the upbeat Bostdorff jokes of the 2009 finish. It’s easier to joke when a coach is experiencing the best season of his career, both in the standings and with the quality kids he feels “blessed” to guide.
A much bulkier 6-4, 210-pound Limes, is now a senior team leader averaging 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Bostdorff’s Knights are 17-2 overall and alone in first place in the Northern Buckeye Conference at 11-1, a game above Lake (18-2, 10-2).
With NBC home games remaining against Elmwood and Rossford, the Knights need one win to clinch a title share and can win it outright with two.
Otsego’s last title came in 2001, the Knights’ second of back-to-back SLL championships.
With Limes and fellow senior Ryan Smoyer in their fourth seasons as varsity starters — plus seniors Jerome Griffin and Tommy Rodgers and junior John Thomas, each in their third year in the varsity lineup — Otsego was the preseason favorite to win the NBC.
Otsego’s lone NBC setback came last Thursday, when Lake pounced on the visiting Knights early and cruised to a 67-51 victory. Otsego had beaten the Flyers 65-57 on Jan. 4 at Otsego.
Ending the 12-year title drought is the primary goal of the NBC’s most experienced team, which was also picked in the 2011-12 preseason coaches poll to win last year’s title.
But Lake and Eastwood shared the title with 11-3 NBC records, and Otsego struggled to an 8-6 mark in conference play and was 12-9 overall.
What is different about this year’s team?
According to Limes, it’s defense.
“Defense is huge,” Limes said. “It’s created offense for us, and kept us going and winning games. Last year we didn’t go all out on defense, and we just didn’t play as well. This year it’s made all the difference.”
Limes has also been effective enough offensively this season to write his name into the school record books.
On. Jan. 10 against Genoa, Limes poured in 41 points to break Otsego’s single-game scoring record previously shared by Duane Smoyer (Ryan’s father) and Greg Asmus. With 1,156 points, he recently also passed Mike Croft (1,096 points, 1993-96) to become the school’s career scoring leader.
Limes was a standout tight end and lineman/linebacker for the Knights, and will play football on scholarship at the University of Findlay.
“The [preseason] rankings don’t really mean anything,” Limes said. “When we were picked to win, it didn’t mean anything. You have to play through the games.
“You can’t look past any team. They’re all good and they can all get you on any night. You have to come out and play hard every night.”
Smoyer, a talented three-sport athlete, was recruited to pitch baseball (91-mph fastball) on scholarship at the University of Notre Dame.
In football, he was All-Ohio Division IV second team as a quarterback after passing for 3,032 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. He sees the current basketball season as the culmination of a journey.
“We definitely got started our sophomore year,” Smoyer said of the program’s progress. “As a class, most of the seniors started playing together on the varsity that year.
“We went through some growing pains, but that year really brought us all together. We realized, for the remainder of our high school career, we’d all be playing together.”
A 6-4 wing/post, Smoyer is averaging 9.0 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds.
“It’s all come together and we just feed off of each other now,” Smoyer said. “We have five guys on the court at any time who all play defense, and anybody can score.
“On any given night, somebody new can come up as the leading scorer, and no one really cares who it is.”
Otsego’s coach sees the unselfish approach as the product of the players’ past experiences together, and their common goal of a championship.
“They’ve just been a really solid group of young men,” Bostdorff said, “and I’m proud to be their coach. There’s five seniors and four juniors on this team. They get along, and they work hard together. It’s been fun to watch them grow up.
“I have four guys on the floor who can absolutely score, and a point guard [Rodgers] who knows where the ball is supposed to go. So far it’s worked pretty good.”
Part of the growth process is a change in the Knights’ mental approach.
“The difference from the past two years to now is that every game we come out with a killer instinct,” said Thomas, a 6-2 post player who contributes 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. “We know we need to come out and pound them from the get-go.
“The past two years we just kind of sat back and played our game, and saw what happened. This year we’re winning the close games, and we’re battling through adversity a lot better. We’re playing more like a team.”
Otsego was 7-15 (4-8 SLL) in 2010-11. The Knights’ other loss this season was at Evergreen (61-36).
Rounding out the starting five is Griffin, a 6-1 wing who adds 9.8 points per game, and Rodgers, a 5-11 point guard who contributes 5.0 points and 5.4 assists.
The top subs are 5-10 junior guard Jalen Myers (5.6 points) and 6-0 junior guard Cody Downs (2.8 points).
Otsego perhaps lacked the killer instinct Thomas referred to in falling at Lake last week.
“Maybe it was a good wakeup call,” Bostdorff said, “although I’m not sure any loss is ever good. After that game, we stayed positive in the locker room, and Friday we got back to work at practice. It was a physical practice, and I think they wanted that just to get refocused.
“I don’t think we’ll come out like that again. I think we’re going to be ready. Everybody’s giving us their best shot right now, and I wouldn’t expect anything less. I think we’re up to the task. We’ll find out.”
Added Smoyer of the Lake loss: “We just came out flat. Sometimes you come into a game and you’re hyped up and ready to go. Sometimes you’re not. I don’t know if there was some anxiety in not coming out very enthusiastic, or just the fact that we thought we had it no matter what.
“It ended up being a good lesson for us going into the final four games. It kind of opened our eyes up, and reminded us that nothing is given to you.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.