The Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division has been one of the best boys basketball leagues in the state since it began play in 2007.
But according to Garfield Heights coach Sonny Johnson, whose Bulldogs won the first two Valley championships, it’s about to get even better.
“I think the competition level is at an all-time high in this division,” the former Ohio Mr. Basketball said. “You’ve always had some great teams, but nothing like we’ve got now.
“Everyone knows about our kids, but you’ve also got Medina coming off a great year. You also have Strongsville with those big, strong kids, and you have Brunswick, who has a Division I college player now. Elyria is coming around, too, so you’re going to see some real battles all season.”
The heavy favorite to win the Valley, though, is Johnson’s powerhouse squad.
The Bulldogs (14-9, 6-4) bring back all but one letterwinner from their “rebuilding year,” led by standout point guard — and Penn State signee — Trey Lewis.
The 6-foot-1 senior is joined as returning starters by sophomore power forward Tony Farmer, who is a lock to play NCAA D-I ball in three years, 6-7 senior center Mike McQueen, and junior shooting guard Mike Davis.
Also back from Garfield Heights’ 2009-10 rotation are 6-9, 270-pound junior center Jermaine Davis, senior guard Terrell Byrd, and junior guard Kenny Simpson.
The only key player the Bulldogs lost was ex-Revere center Will Weeks, who is now at his third high school in four years; this one in Arden, N.C.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how these guys adjust to playing without Will,” Johnson said. “Outside of him, our whole team really is back and they gained some good experience last season.
“With a little more maturity, I think these guys will be able to compete every night against anybody.”
Strongsville (11-10, 6-4) has maturity, talent, a Hall of Fame coach, and a power game that is second-to-none in the NOC.
Iowa recruit Aaron White, a 6-8 center, might be the most complete player in the conference. He averaged 19.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 4.05 blocked shots as a junior.
Joining him on the blocks is Ray Hamilton, a 6-5 power forward who missed all of last season with an injury. The senior is also headed to Iowa, but for football, and averaged a whopping 15-15 double-double two years ago.
Rounding out Strongsville’s all-senior starting five are defensive ace Ryan Hopkins, point guard Jordan Prahst, and newcomer Gurjeet Gill.
“(Gill) will score in double figures,” Mustangs coach Joe Lynch predicted. “He’s a great shooter.”
Medina (20-3, 9-1) broke Garfield Heights’ two-year strangle lock on the league by winning its first NOC title behind Medina County MVP Tyler Peters.
The new-look Bees are still coached by Jody Peters and will be led by junior forward Kenny Kaminski, a Michigan State recruit, and senior point guard Justin Letts.
Brunswick (17-5, 7-3) boasts West Virginia-bound center Pat Forsythe, who coach Joe Mackey said improved more over the summer than any player he has ever seen. The senior pivot is 6-10 and will be flanked by four perimeter shooters, including senior forward Matt Dunning.
Elyria (9-12, 2-8) should be much improved in its third year under up-and-coming coach Brett Larrick.
The Pioneers are led by 6-6 senior center Chase Ferris, a three-year letterwinner who will play football at Ohio State. Sophomore shooting guard Kody Bender and senior power forward Devin Swidecki also will be featured players.
The biggest obstacle for the Pioneers might be their schedule, which only includes seven home games — all inside the defunct Elyria West High gym, which now sports a sparkling red-and-black court, complete with mascot Petey Pioneer in the center circle.
“We do practice at Elyria West every day, so that will make it easier to adjust,” Larrick said. “The times just differ a little on certain days and weeks because we have to work with the girls team, but it will be worth it when we open our new gym next winter and all those schools come here.”
Lakewood (0-21, 0-10) has absolutely nowhere to go but up after putting together the NOC’s worst-ever campaign. Senior Dan Mazzeo, junior Jay Andreani and sophomore Peter Nelson figure to provide most of the offense for veteran coach Phil Argento’s squad.
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.