TRAC boys basketball preview: Lima Senior favored to repeat

By Steve Junga / The Blade
Tue, 03 Dec 2019 17:21:12 GMT

The Three Rivers Athletic Conference boys basketball title chase this season will have a decided southern lean, as 2018-19 co-champion Lima Senior (22-5 overall, 12-2 TRAC) returns four starters and four other letter winners from its Division I regional final team

The Spartans are viewed as the clear championship favorite, and Findlay (14-9, 8-6), which returns three starters, is projected to place third.

In between is an improved Central Catholic (14-10, 6-8) squad that has four starters back.

The Spartans of sixth-year Lima Senior coach Quincey Simpson are near-unanimous favorites to repeat their title of last season, collecting seven of the eight first-place votes, and 61 of a possible 64 voting points, to finish first in a preseason poll of TRAC coaches.

“Being picked the favorite to win the conference is a blessing,” Simpson said. “But I understand the game is not won by votes. The game is won by executing at both ends of the floor, having kids prepared and playing extremely hard at a high level.”

Central was second with 52 points, Findlay was third at 42, and St. John’s Jesuit got the other first-place vote and was fourth at 41 points, one more than rival St. Francis de Sales.

Last season’s other co-champion, Whitmer (21-4, 12-2), graduated all five starters and returns only three letter winners from the 2018-19 Panthers roster.

Seventh-year coach Ryan Brown’s Panthers were picked to place sixth this season.

St. John’s was 11-11, 7-7 in the 40th and final season of former coach Ed Heintschel (725-224 career record), who guided the Titans to six Division I state final-four appearances, including three state runner-up finishes.

Former Titans player and longtime assistant coach Mike Schoen has the unenviable task of succeeding Heintschel under The Dome on Airport Highway.

He, and six other TRAC coaches will also have a great task in competing with a talented and veteran Lima Senior team, led by two returning senior first team All-TRAC players — conference co-player of the year Josiah Fulcher, and Jamir Simpson.

“Having four returning starters gives us some chemistry that we normally don’t have this early in the season,” Simpson said. “So, that part definitely helps. I look at those guys to be more leaders, on and off the floor, and show the other guys the effort it takes to compete at this level.

“Our keys have always been the same, and we will not go away from that. In order to win games you have to win at the glass, and you have to defend. No matter the level, if you’re able to have success with those two things, you give yourself an opportunity to win basketball games.”

Here's a look at the TRAC in predicted order of finish based on a preseason coaches' poll:

LIMA SENIOR

Coach: Quincey Simpson, sixth season

Last season: 22-5 overall, 12-2 TRAC

Top players: Seniors Josiah Fulcher, 6-1, W; Jamir Simpson, 6-4, W; Jadakis Mack, 6-3, W. Junior Jourdyn Rawlins, 5-8, G. Sophomore Khalil Luster, 5-5, G.

Strengths: Creating and handling pressure, perimeter shooting, scoring balance

Weaknesses: Size, rebounding, post offense, post defense

Outlook: The Spartans seem destined for a repeat TRAC title and third in six seasons under coach Simpson. His 2015-16 team, led by son and current University of Michigan star point guard Zavier Simpson, finished 29-1 as Division I state runner-up to Westerville South. This team looks to get back to Columbus after ending one win short of the final last season. Fulcher (17 points, 5.8 rebounds), Jamir Simpson (11.6 points, 7.6 rebounds), Mack (6.6 points) and Luster (6.9 points) compose one of the state’s top returning lineups in Division I. Their high-pressure defense creates up-tempo offense, and it is difficult to prevent crucial Spartan scoring surges. “This year, we look to play fast at both ends of the floor,” coach Simpson said. “Hopefully, we can capitalize on the experience of the players returning from last year.”

CENTRAL CATHOLIC

Coach: Mike Floyd, second season

Last season: 14-10, 6-8

Top players: Seniors Jonzell Norrils, 6-0, G; Dominique Cole, 6-6, F; Cameron Awls, 5-11, G; Kendal Marshall, 6-3, F.

Strengths: Experience, scoring balance, perimeter defense

Weaknesses: Size, depth, handling pressure

Outlook: The Fighting Irish return four starters plus another letter winner from a team that made good strides during Floyd’s first season as head coach. They will be handicapped early by the late Division II playoff run by the football team, which included many of Central’s basketball players, including Norrils (10 points, 5.5 assists), Cole (8 points, 4 rebounds) and Marshall (8 points, 5.3 rebounds). Awls (9 points, 3 assists) may have to lead the way early. Once the Irish can transition from football mode, they expect to contend near the top of the TRAC, although knocking off Lima Senior would be a long shot. “We hope that we can use the experience our returners have gained over their careers to help us take the next step as a program,” Floyd said. “While we return a lot, we will need to develop our depth in order to compete at a high level. The challenge, as it is every year, will be to get our football guys up to speed on what we are doing, and into basketball shape.”

FINDLAY

Coach: Jim Rucki, 21st season

Last season: 14-9, 8-6

Top players: Senior Isaiah Moore, 5-7, G. Juniors A.J. Adams, 6-4, F; Chris Strzempka, 6-5, C. Sophomore, Max Roth, 5-11, G.

Strengths: overall depth, size, post offense

Weaknesses: Creating pressure, post defense, rebounding

Outlook: The new dean of TRAC coaches, Rucki begins his 21st season at Findlay (299-156 record) and 31st as an Ohio head coach (459-227 overall). He will rely upon Adams (17 points, 7.7 rebounds) and Strzempka (7 points, 5 rebounds) for leadership and production, with help from fellow returnees Moore (2.1 points) and Roth (2.5 points). The Trojans’ key graduation losses were three-year starters Ryan Nunn (18.3 points), a first team All-TRAC player, and Ryan Roth (12.8 points), who was named all-conference second team.  “We need to fill the void left by the graduation of guards Ryan Nunn and Ryan Roth, who combined to score nearly 2,000 career points,” Rucki said. “After our four returning letter winners, we have eight newcomers competing for spots 5 through 8. A strong sophomore class will gives us depth. “We have been a little banged up in the preseason, but we hope to improve as the season goes on, and compete in a league with many talented teams.”

ST. JOHN’S

Coach: Mike Schoen, first season

Last season: 11-11, 7-7

Top players: Seniors Sam Swift, 6-1, G; Gary Batch, 6-3, F. Junior Brady Lichtenberg, 6-1, G.

Strengths: Perimeter shooting, scoring balance, depth

Weaknesses: Post offense, creating pressure, perimeter defense

Outlook: Schoen takes over for 40-year coach Ed Heintschel (725-224 career record), who guided the Titans to 17 league and 16 district titles, plus six trips to the state final four. Coming off a .500 season with just two starters and two other letter winners returning, Schoen’s rookie season promises to be challenging. Swift, a sharp-shooting guard, missed last season with a knee injury from the 2018 football season. Lichtenberg (10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds) and Batch (5.7 points, 5.7 rebounds) will be counted on for leadership. “We have a lot of questions as the year begins,” Schoen said. “Our goal is to continue to improve throughout the season, and play our best basketball in February and March.”

ST. FRANCIS

Coach: Travis Lewis, eighth season

Last season: 18-6, 9-5

Top players: Senior Carsten Mayes, 6-7, F. Juniors Fiesel Crumby, 5-11, W; Sebastian McClellan, 6-1, W; Eyelie (Steven) Kouakou, 5-9, W. Sophomore Cli’ron Hornbeak, 6-9, C.

Strengths: Perimeter shooting, size, speed

Weaknesses: Inexperience, depth, scoring balance

Outlook: The Knights return no starters and just three letter winners for Lewis, who lost three-year starters Jackie Harris (19.7 points, 10.4 rebounds) and Jakiel Wells (12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds) to graduation, and 6-6 starter Jamiya Neal (10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds), a junior who has transferred to Rogers. The 6-7 Harris and Wells were each named first team All-TRAC, and Neal was picked second team All-TRAC. Thus, it’s back to the drawing board with a squad that hopes to utilize its size in the frontcourt. “We are very young but very balanced,” Lewis said. “Our personnel will provide us the opportunity to play in multiple different ways on a given night. Our guard play will be the strength of our offense due to multiple guys being able to handle the ball and play together.”

WHITMER

Coach: Ryan Brown, seventh year

Last season: 21-4, 12-2

Top players: Seniors Tony Delvaux, 6-0, G; Riley Keller, 6-1, G; Romelle Grier, 6-2, F. Junior Zach Brown, 5-7, G. Sophomore Maurice Purley, 6-6, G.

Strengths: Handling pressure, creating pressure, perimeter defense

Weaknesses: Inexperience, overall depth, scoring balance

Outlook: The Panthers lost all five starters from its TRAC co-championship team of last season, including conference co-player of the year Eddie Colbert (20.1 points, 7.6 rebounds), and three-year point guard Trey Syroka (12.1 points). Leon Hughes (10.2 points) and Areon Evans (9.9 points) made Whitmer the area’s most balanced team offensively. Coach Brown (94-55 record) will rebuild around Keller, who started as a sophomore before missing last season with a football injury, and Delvaux, a former Panther who played at Toledo Christian last year, but transferred back to Whitmer for his senior season. Zach Brown and Purley saw significant court time off the bench. “Our team has been working hard and getting better each day,” coach Brown said. “Graduating 95 percent of our scoring from last year, it’s important that we create turnovers off of pressure on defense, and share the ball on offense.”

CLAY

Coach: Dave Rodriguez, third season

Last season: 3-20, 1-13

Top players: Seniors Dorian Myers, 5-10, G; Derek Bolander, 6-2, G; Jonah Kiss, 6-5, F. Juniors Frank Waganfeald, 6-8, C; Noah Hagdohl, 6-6, F; Keeghan Calkins, 5-8, G.

Strengths: Size, experience, depth

Weaknesses: Creating pressure, rebounding, handling pressure

Outlook: Clay, which perhaps has its best returning talent since moving from the City League when the TRAC was formed, is looking for improvement. The Eagles have struggled through 14 consecutive losing seasons since finishing 15-6 in 2004-05 under former coach Joe Guerrero in the City League. After that season, they have gone 64-241 overall, and 22-155 in league games, including 6-106 in the TRAC since 2011-12. The first step for the Eagles will be to leave that past behind them, and build around Waganfeald (11.8 points, 8.8 rebounds), and their three other returning starters. Myers (5 points), Calkin (5 points), and Bolander (5 points) provide balance on the perimeter, and Hagdohl and Kiss create formidable size along with Waganfeald inside. “Last year was the first year playing varsity basketball for most of our kids,” Rodriguez said. “We have everything you need to compete in this league. No more excuses.”

FREMONT ROSS

Coach: John Cahill, second season

Last season: 5-18, 1-13

Top players: Seniors Ben Gedeon, 6-0, G; Connor Malan, 6-1, F. Sophomores LaBronze Barnett, 6-1, F; Kahji Pickens, 5-8, G; Kurt Harrison, 6-3, F.

Strengths: Scoring balance, perimeter shooting, depth

Weaknesses: Inexperience, creating pressure, size

Outlook: Cahill is in the midst of a difficult rebuilding situation, with only one returning starter and one other letter winner back. Gedeon (5.2 points) is the only returnee who contributed much on offense, and top producers Jabryis Heidelburg (10.9 points) and Bryce Root (5.5 rebounds) have graduated along with two other starters. Thus, the Little Giants will basically rebuild from scratch, and hope for the best. Strong defensive effort and patient offense may be their best bet to stay competitive in a strong TRAC schedule. “We are an underdog in every game on paper, and totally understand that,” Cahill said. “We are young, and are trying to get our culture to a point that it doesn’t prevent winning. Our kids and coaches are expecting improvements and effort daily.”

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