Call it balance, parity, or depth, but the Northern Lakes League has featured five different champions in the last five seasons.
The race may once again be wide open. Springfield gets the early nod from coaches to win its first title since 1996-97 when the Blue Devils shared the crown with Perrysburg. Springfield received seven first-place votes in a preseason coaches' poll.
Only two letterwinners return for Springfield third-year coach Stan Joplin, but six promising newcomers bring great skill and promise to the fast-paced attack.
“We have a lot of potential as a team,” Joplin said. “We will be very athletic and should be able to get the tempo up and score the basketball effectively.”
Senior guard Markese Hicks averaged 8.7 points per game last year. Senior guard Manny Durden has transferred from Rossford along with his sophomore brother Mason Durden.
The Blue Devils went from 4-17 to 15-8 last season under Joplin, the former University of Toledo coach.
“If we share the basketball effectively and learn to turn down good shots to get great shots for our teammates, we should have success,” Joplin said. “Good teams always do the little things at a high level to win games and we must focus on those.”
Perrysburg has three returning starters for veteran coach Dave Boyce. The Yellow Jackets will be led by senior guard Nick Moschetti, the league's top returning scorer who averaged 17.3 points.
With two returning starters among five letterwinners, Anthony Wayne coach Bryan Borcherdt has the weapons to make a run at a repeat. Senior guard Matt Fox averaged 13.5 points to garner All-NLL second team honors.
Longtime Whitmer coach Bruce Smith takes over at Southview. Smith coached at Whitmer for 22 seasons and complied a 306-165 record.
Smith inherits six letterwinners. Senior guard Matt Morrison is the only player in the league to return with All-NLL first-team honors.
There are also new coaches at Bowling Green and Napoleon.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Stan Joplin, third season
Last season: 15-8 overall, 8-6 NLL
Top players: Seniors Markese Hicks, 5-9, G; Chad Roy, 6-6, F; Manny Durden, 6-2, G. Juniors Demajeo Wiggins, 6-8, F; John Key, 6-1, G/F; Josh Siers, 6-1, G; Keyston Saxton, 5-11, G. Sophomore Mason Durden, 5-8, G.
Outlook: Two letterwinners and six promising players should make up the difference for six lost to graduation.
Hicks was the team's third-leading scorer and dished out 24 assists. Roy scored 5.3 points per game.
Durden earned All-Northern Buckeye Conference second team honors as a sophomore at Rossford when he averaged 14.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Joplin, who has a 19-25 overall record, said he likes his team's athleticism and quickness. But he is concerned about the lack of size.
“We don't have much bulk so we will get pushed around by the more physical teams,” he said. “We also need to learn how to give consistent effort throughout an entire game. We have spurts but must learn how to maintain it for 32 minutes.”
Coach: Dave Boyce, 14th season
Last season: 15-9, 9-5
Top players: Seniors Nick Moschetti, 6-3, G; Matt Kaczinski, 6-5, F; Nate Patterson, 6-5, C; Kenny Zimmerman 5-10, F. Juniors Quinn Thomas 5-10, PG; Matt Mesker 5-10, G; Zach Schrock, 6-6, C. Sophomore Trevor Hafner, 5-11, G.
Outlook: Boyce, who has a career record of 215-71, will be counting on four letterwinners.
Moschetti averaged 2.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists to earn All-NLL second team honors. Kaczinski scored 4.6 points and had 4.8 rebounds. Patterson tallied 9.1 points and grabbed 5.0 rebounds per game.
Boyce said his team is relatively athletic and has some depth along with competitiveness.
“Finding a second scorer to compliment Moschetti will be a huge key along with the overall shooting of our guards,” Boyce said.
Coach: Bryan Borcherdt, third season
Last season: 20-5, 11-3
Top players: Seniors Matt Fox, 6-3, G; Jake Reid, 6-5, C; Hunter Johnson, 6-2, F; Kyle Breymaier. 6-0, G. Junior Jamar Allen, 6-4, F.
Outlook: Fox is back as a starter along with Jake Reid (6.0 points, 4.0 rebounds). Johnson (2.2 points) came off the bench.
Borcherdt lost center Mark Donnal to the University of Michigan.
“We will be deeper than we have been in years past with a solid inside and outside game,” Borcherdt said. “I look forward to what this team could be. We are more athletic than we have been the last two seasons and are taller, across the board.”
Coach: Bruce Smith, first season
Last season: 6-16, 3-11
Top players: Seniors Matt Morrison, 5-8, G; Nate Hall, 6-3, C; Justin Schaffer, 6-0, G; J.J. Pinckney, 6-3, F. Juniors Jeremiah Roberts, 6-3, F; Leon Eggleston, 6-0, F.
Outlook: Morrison averaged 16.7 points while Hall scored 11.2 last season. Morrison and Hall are returning starters along with Roberts. Six letterwinners return overall.
“Early on we should be pretty solid defensively and we hope improvements on offense occur steadily,” Smith said.
Roberts and Pinckney are still recovering from injuries. Schaffer returns after missing the entire 2012-13 season with an injury.
“We hope to get healthy soon,” said Smith, who has been coaching for 35 years. He said his Cougars team does not have any real size inside and their shooting at this time is a question mark.
Coach: Derek Sheridan, sixth season
Last season: 14-9, 6-8
Top players: Senior Chris Harding, 5-9, G. Juniors Brendan Callahan, 6-0, G; Jason Matcham, 6-2, G; Brian Utter, 6-0, F; Louie Mauro, 5-10, G.
Outlook: Sheridan lost his entire starting five to graduation but has four letterwinners back. Harding, Callahan, Matcham, Utter, and Mauro all saw some time on the varsity.
Seniors Mitchell Kontak (G), Joey Szymanski (F), and Vikram Saini (F) have shown promise along with a strong core that played on the JV.
Sheridan cites unselfishness and team chemistry as strong suits.
“We’ll have to share the ball and be a team that does things by committee,” he said. “Our players seem to be gelling well together. We’ve got a lot of new faces this year, so team cohesiveness will be paramount.”
Coach: Mark Malinowski, first season
Last season: 14-11, 9-5
Top players: Senior Cam Casey, 6-2, F. Juniors Lamonta Stone, 5-7, G; Mitchell Gardner, 6-2, F; Jackson Stewart, 5-10, G. Sophomore Trent Hinton, 5-11, G.
Outlook: Stone returns as the point guard after averaging 9.5 points and 6.5 assists. He earned All-NLL first team honors. Gardner scored 2.5 points and grabbed 2.4 rebounds.
Malinowski said he likes his team's ability to shoot the ball. He also said the Bobcats have good all around team speed. The team lacks height with no player over 6-2. BG does not have much experience.
“[We] will rely heavily offensively on the team's overall good speed and their shooter knocking down shots,” Malinowski said. “Defensively the focus has been on protecting the lane and rebounding.”
Coach: Joe Good, first season
Last season: 9-14, 3-11
Top players: Seniors Anson Lankenau, 6-0, G; Zach Willeman, 6-2, F; Bryant Schlade, 5-11, F. Juniors Blake Dunbar, 5-8, G; Michael Gilliland, 5-11, G. Sophomore Nick Daman, 6-0, G.
Outlook: Good, a 1995 Napoleon graduate, inherits three starters and seven letterwinners from former coach Tim Badenhop. But he lost Jordan Lauf, a 6-5 forward, who is now at the University of Toledo.
Dunbar averaged 10.5 points per game.
Good said perimeter shooting and varsity experience are strengths. He also said he has a smart, hard-working group.
“The game speed and physicality won't be a surprise,” he said.
Coach: Terry Shadle, sixth season
Last season: 13-10, 7-7
Top Players: Seniors Adam Downing, 6-0, G; John Wendt, 6-4, F. Sophomores Aerin West, 6-3, G; Mohamed Afifi, 5-11, G; Austin Sample, 6-4, F; Austin Rodgers, 6-2, G/F.
Outlook: Two starters are among three letterwinners for the Wildcats.
Downing averaged 4.0 points per game, while Wendt chipped in with 2.0 points per game.
West tallied 5.0 points and grabbed 5.0 rebounds per game.
Shadle said his team is long and athletic.
“We are going to force the tempo of the game with an aggressive pressing defense,” he said. “I think that we are going to rebound the basketball pretty well, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Our length is going to cause opponents some issues getting into their offenses.”
But he graduated seven seniors who contributed 45 points per game.
“Varsity experience will be our biggest hurdle,” Shadle said. “I think we are going to be a very scrappy team that is going to cause some ugly basketball games with the tempo that we are going to play. It is going to be important to experience some early success."