After each left his local coaching job to go on another journey, three well-known prep basketball coaches have returned to vie for championships once again.
This time around, Keith Diebler, Jim Grayck, and Tom Kontak will seek championships at a completely different school than the one where they had once established successful programs.
Diebler, a former coach at Gibsonburg, went on to win a Division II state championship at Upper Sandusky, and now he and assistant coach Jeremiah Diebler, his son, are coaching boys basketball at Genoa.
Gracyk, after winning championships and earning a trip to the state final four while coaching girls’ basketball at Eastwood, went on to be an assistant at several Toledo area schools before returning this year to take over the Lake girls program.
Kontak, after establishing Genoa girls basketball as a perennial league power, went on to become a varsity official before landing a job as girls coach at Oak Harbor this year. Following him to Oak Harbor is his former Genoa assistant, Art Eli.
That’s not the only change brought on by coaches this year. Ohio’s basketball coaches finally got their way after years of petitioning the Ohio High School Athletic Association to allow more games on their schedule. Teams are allowed to schedule 22 games this year, two more than last year.
But how many local coaches will get their way against league competition this year? That remains to be seen as the season is just getting underway.
Northern Buckeye boys
Diebler isn’t the kind of coach who beats around the bush when it comes to talking basketball. The characteristics of Genoa’s offense will be the same as when he was at Gibsonburg, Fostoria, and Upper Sandusky. Expect the Comets to reach 90, maybe even 100 points once or twice if everything goes to plan.
“Were going to run, just like I’ve done everywhere I’ve been, and we’re going to pressure the ball,” Diebler said. “After Christmas, we’ll be better. Right now we’re spending most of our time on skill work. You have to execute in your spots for the system to work. It’s been a complete 180-degree turn for them, and they’re receptive. It’s not where we’re at today (that counts), it’s where we’re heading.”
Diebler is not the only new man in town in the Northern Buckeye Conference. Matt Routson takes over the Eastwood boys program after Todd Henline decided to exit. Routson, the Eagles’ former junior varsity coach and former Genoa assistant, takes over a program that tied Lake for the NBC title last season.
“We will need to grow up quickly on the court,” Routson said. “We aren’t young, but we are very inexperienced at the varsity level. We have a very hard working group of kids who are anxious to get their opportunity at the varsity level.”
Routson added that Eastwood will look to play an up-tempo style of play whenever possible, “but we will also look to execute a solid half court offense.”
“We will look to create scoring opportunities for our players out of our half-court offense,” he said. “We are athletic at the guard and post position, so we will take any chance we get to push the tempo.”
So, you have two NBC teams that would like to go up-tempo, why not add a third? Let’s bring in Lake coach Ryan Bowen, whose offenses are already well-established for their ability to score points while getting up and down the floor.
Bowen said “buying in” are two words that will be crucial to the Flyers’ season if they want to defend their co-championship.
“If the kids buy in to what we want to do,” Bowen said, “we should compete for another title. We’re still going to be young, so we will need to play as a team more than ever. As always, we love to run and get up and down the court. We like to play 94 feet of defense, but with our size we are more than capable of slowing things down and pounding it down low.”
The problem for those three teams is Woodmore returns Alan Miller Jewelers All-Press first team selection Donny Bowen (14 pts., 9.8 reb.) and adds to the mix 6-foot-8 senior post Harrison Wooten.
“(Bowen) has the ability to score in multiple ways from anywhere on the floor, as well as create shots for his teammates,” said Woodmore coach Brad Sander. “It’s no secret that we will rely heavily on Donny to score a lot of points as well as be a force for us in the rebounding game.”
Sander says a successful season will depend on improved team defense and rebounding.
“We are a little more experienced this year than in my first two years, so we will play a wide-range of defenses in the half court as well as full court,” he said. “Offensively, our athleticism and play-making ability will allow us to get out and run in transition a little more than in the past. We have done a great job all fall of trusting each other and sharing the ball to find the open man.”
Northern Buckeye girls
Note from Gracyk to fellow NBC coaches: “Every time we touch the ball, we’re going as fast as we can down the floor the other way,” said Gracyk, who used that strategy to win 10 Suburban Lakes League titles and make one state final four appearance during his illustrious coaching tenure at Eastwood.
Gracyk inherits a young team coming off four straight league championships – three in the SLL and one in the NBC last season. Two full-time starters, Shaffer and Taylor, return from last year’s squad and his team was picked by coaches to win the title again.
Gracyk, who was hired in May, said the Flyers’ offseason went well, but injuries began to pile up.
“We had skills days a couple days a week and we spent a lot of time trying to work on ball handing and shooting,” he said. “We went to three shootouts. But, we’re way behind schedule. We had two kids who just got back into practicing (in early November) and two who haven’t practiced due to previous injuries. Catie Phalen missed two months due to a soccer injury. One girl broke her leg the last week of soccer, and another girl got an ACL injury.”
“If you’re going to get us, you better get us early in the season. We’re going to be pretty good when the second half rolls around. I’d like to see ourselves winning our fifth (conference title) in a row. That’s my goal.”
Mike DeStazio, who was at Woodmore when he coached against Gracyk, is now at Genoa. He would be another of those coaches who have established themselves, only to be at another school, only he made the change three years ago.
At Genoa, DeStazio says that this year’s group of girls has been a lot of fun to coach and be around.
“Chemistry is a valuable tool in building a successful team,” he said. “This team gets along very well on and off the court. We have versatility in playing different positions with different players. They play as hard as any kids I’ve coached in basketball (12 years). This group makes it fun to come to work.”
DeStazio, who graduated 28 points per game from last year’s team, added that the Comets will have to compensate for a lack of size.
“We have to do a very good job of locating people, checking out and being aggressive on the boards,” he said. “If we continue to improve as much as we have since the summer, we could be a very good team by Christmas. We have implemented some new things defensively, and we are hoping this will help create more offense for us. Our goal will be to push the ball and play very aggressive defense.”
“We’re going to shoot the 3-ball - I have four kids who can shoot it - and we’re going to put it up. That is going to be our strength in the half-court offense.”
DeStazio returns All-Press first team guard Ciara Albright (13.1 pts., 5.2 reb.)
“Last year her points didn’t indicate how good she really is. If she would have shot her free throw percentage near 70 percent, she probably would have averaged 16 points. She takes the ball to the hole and finishes it. This year we’re looking for more perimeter scoring, and she’s working very hard to be more of a complete player,” DeStazio said.
Five-foot-8 junior Brynn Skilliter will start in the post and will be counted on to triple her scoring average from a year ago.
“If she can give us six points and six rebounds, she’ll make us five games better than last year,” DeStazio said. “She’s working hard at it. She’s a three-sport athlete and a good, hard-working kid. She’s going to get better every game.”
Expecting to have something to say about that is Woodmore. The Wildcats were picked to finish third in the NBC behind Rossford and Lake.
“This is definitely a realistic goal for us, as we want to contend for an NBC championship,” Coach Kyle Clair said. “The girls know they have a long way to go before this opportunity presents itself, but the girls know what they are capable of. It will be a tremendous year, and as a coach, I couldn’t ask for a better group of student athletes to work with.”
The key to the Wildcats’ success, Clair said, starts with their effort at the defensive end.
“As always, we will look to our defense for our team’s success,” he said. “Our defensive pressure will have to provide us with some easy buckets in order to get our confidence up offensively. As the season progresses, we hope to develop some comfort and confidence with our new and younger players to increase our depth.”
Second-year Eastwood coach Gary Lemle had a girls program established at Cardinal Stritch and before that was an assistant under Gracyk at Eastwood.
“We expect to be highly competitive,” he said. “We are striving to be a team to not be taken lightly. We need to improve defensively and be better rebounders. I expect the team to build on the improvement from last year, when we went from two wins to seven and we lowered our average margin of defeat to six points in league games.”
The Eagles were picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in the Northern Buckeye Conference behind Rossford, Lake, Woodmore, Elmwood, Otsego and Genoa. Fostoria was picked to finish last.
“The votes between third and where we were was just a few points,” Lemle said. “Everybody was bunched up. Our league is going to be highly competitive. We don’t expect to finish second to last.”
Toledo Area boys
The last two years were among the best in Gibsonburg boys’ basketball history.
In 2010-11, the Golden Bears made an incredible run through the postseason and advanced to the Division III District Final and last season, the Gibsonburg went 17-5 and finished 11-3 in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference, one of Ohio’s best small conferences.
But the key playerss from those teams are gone. All five starters, point guard Gage Beaber, wings Dylan Dorfmeyer and Nate Yarborough, and Adam Clark and Logan Jones in the post, graduated last spring, leaving serious voids to be filled.
Regardless, coach Brent Liskai confident that this year’s squad can have a good season.
“We have a very competitive group of kids,” said Liskai. “They work really hard and I think we can be competitive (in the league). But rebounding is an issue.”
"We’ve got a really tough opening schedule and we just want to compete early and peak later in the year,” Liskai said. “The league is very tough; we just want to get ourselves settled. Our kids work hard (and) we’re going to be fine. We just have to get some experience.”
In his first two seasons as coach at Cardinal Stritch, Dave Rieker has moved the Cardinals in the right direction. His first season, 2010-11, saw Stritch go 6-15 after struggling to a 1-21 finish the year before, and the Cardinals finished 9-12 with a 5-9 mark in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference last season while competing with a number of the conference’s elite teams along the way.
This year, Rieker is hoping that his team can take that next step and establish themselves as one of the TAAC’s best teams.
It won’t be easy, considering the fact that the Cardinals must replace three key players from last season, Marquis Harrison (14 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg), Mike Blazevich (8 ppg, 4 rpg) and Kyle Hatfield. But the continued growth of 6-3 guard Austin Adams (9 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg) and 6-3 forward Robbie Bekier (8 ppg, 2 rpg), along with the chemistry of the group gives Rieker reason to believe that his team is ready to turn the corner.
First-year head coach Jimmy Scharer is trying to rebuild the Northwood boys’ basketball program after the Rangers went 4-17 overall and 3-11 in the ultra-competitive Toledo Area Athletic Conference.
If he is to get good, solid contributions from his upperclassmen, both on the court and in the leadership department, he could very well be on his way to turning things around.
Scharer believes that a number of challenges lie ahead for the Rangers, who compete in one of the the state’s top small-school basketball conferences, one that features the likes of Toledo Christian and Gibsonburg.
“I think the conference is pretty balanced,” he said. “There’s Toledo Christian, Ottawa Hills, Maumee Valley and Gibsonburg. And those next spots, it’ll be between us and Cardinal Stritch, Emmanuel Christian and Danbury.”
Also returning in the TAAC is All-Press first team selection Eric Cellier (17.7 points, 3 asst.), a Northwood resident who is a senior at Toledo Christian this year.
Toledo Area girls
Once again, it looks as if everyone is chasing Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills in TAAC girls’ basketball, picked to finish first and second. However, Gibsonburg has a chance this year to begin establishing themselves as one of the league’s top-tier teams.
For now, Coach John Ernsthausen is optimistic that his team can continue to improve and give itself a chance to keep with the best teams in the conference.
“We definitely want to keep improving,” he said. “We want to work together and we want to win the TAAC, that’s always a goal. We’ve got to play well. They’re committed to turning the corner this year and winning a few games.
An area of concern for Cardinal Stritch Catholic coach Terry Murnen, who sees his rotation featuring eight players, is Stritch’s performance in the non-league portion of the schedule. While the Cardinals did pretty well in the conference last season (8-6, fourth place), they went 0-6 against teams outside of the TAAC.
This year, Stritch, who already lost to Fremont St. Joseph in the opener, will face Tiffin Calvert, Metamora Evergreen, Fostoria St. Wendelin, Swanton and Sandusky St. Mary in non-league play. The schedule as a whole, specifically the early portion, is quite challenging, seeing as the Cardinals must face the top two teams in the league, Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills on the road. On top of that, six of Stritch’s first eight games are away from home.
“We’ve struggled as far as non-league games,” Murnen said. “We hope to be more successful in our non-league schedule and compete for the league title. That will depend on how well our young kids grow up.”
Competing in a league that features the likes of Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills won’t make things any easier for Northwood, not to mention the fact that Cardinal Stritch and Gibsonburg are expected to be improved this season.
According to Northwood coach Bill Hamilton, the team wants to focus on having steady improvement as the season progresses and hopes that the non-conference slate can prepare them for league play.
“As a group, we sat down and basically said, ‘Our job is to improve every practice and play our best in every game,’” Hamilton said.
Clay coach Rob Belegrin knows the Eagles will have their work cut out for them in the rugged Three Rivers Athletic Conference this season. So what else is new?
“We were competitive last season,” Belegrin said. “We had a nice season with only five wins. That’s the nature of the league. We were in every game we played. It’s a tough league and we’re playing against guys who are going to the Big Ten - which half the guys are in either basketball or football – so you have to play perfect. Last year we wouldn’t play perfect for about a minute of the game and we’d lose by six.”
Returning is second team All-Press guard Patricc Booth (14.9 pts., 2.8 asst.)
“If he’s open, he’ll hit his shots,” Belegrin said. “He’ll have to understand when his shots are going to come and work hard to get open. He’s really going to have to get some stamina because he’s going to be running all over the place with guys chasing him. He’ll be the No. 1 option on the other team’s scouting report. He’s the purest shooter I’ve seen at Clay High School in 17 years.”
Aaron Slovak takes over the Clay girls program for Kevin Crosson. Slovak, a 1989 Clay graduate, was an Eagles assistant girls coach last year under Crosson, who resigned in April after one season due to health issues. Slovak also helped coach Central Catholic’s boys’ team for three years with Jim Welling.
The Eagles, whose only win last season came against Fremont Ross, struggled mainly due to a lack of height and team chemistry issues. Slovak said his team’s forte begins with pressure defense.
“We’re going to pressure people, and we have some girls who can shoot,” he said. “We’re going to move the ball on offense and take shots when they’re available. We’re going to play five guards and try to spread the floor a little bit and take advantage of what we do well.”
Clay’s freshman team went 15-1 and won the TRAC title last season. Slovak said several players from that team will play on the varsity this year.
“We have five that are going to be in the rotation and two that are going to play jayvee and dress varsity,” he said. “There’s a good chance three of those sophomores are going to be starters. They are very hard working and talented, but they are sophomores. We’re going to be looking at some bumps in the road, but they work well together and they get after it.”
In his previous 14 seasons at Waite, girls’ coach Manny May has built quite a program. During his tenure, the Indians have established themselves as one of the City League’s best teams, highlighted by an appearance in the Division I state final in 2010.
This season, May expects his team to compete for a CL title and is hopeful that they’ll make a run in the postseason, too.
“It’s about us maturing and growing — we have three seniors, a whole lot of juniors and a sophomore. Our first goal is to finish in the top-four in the City League. Then we’re looking at sectionals, districts, regionals and state.
The Waite boys basketball program is in a state of flux, and first-year coach Adam Rodriguez is hoping to turn things around. Rodriguez, who took the job on October 1, is hoping to change the culture within the program at Waite, both on the court and in the classroom.
“It’s going to take some work (to change) the culture. I think (the team) lost seven of their top nine guys. I tell them that they have to take care of things in the classroom and work hard in practice. If we start out 2-0, you never know how they’re confidence might start up. We’ve got some really good kids.”
During the offseason, Kontak, who had a six-year run in Genoa from 2004-10, took over after head coach Brad Hemminger resigned. In his six seasons with the Comets, Kontak led Genoa to a 91-44 record and two Suburban Lakes League titles.
Right now, Kontak is trying to instill a sense of toughness and competitive spirit within his team.
“We’re asking kids who have been together for a while to change things. They’ve embraced the new challenges that we’ve presented to them,” Kontak said.
While Kontak is looking forward to having his team improve upon last season’s 7-14 record, he is more concerned with instilling the proper mentality in his players.
“Right now, we (have) a game-to-game (mentality), our first major goal is to understand that there is a way we want to play, that is with great passion, a scrappiness, a toughness, no matter your defense, offense, you play (hard). We want to win the right way and for the right reasons. We want to make sure that we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.”
Oak Harbor boys coach Dave Sweet, whose roots are buried in the basketball-rich tradition of Ottawa-Glandorf, is primarily concerned with changing the culture within the program and helping to build a foundation based on good defense and a strong work ethic.
“We want to be the kind of team that, after people play us, they’ll say, “‘we had to earn it. It was a dog fight with Oak Harbor.’”