By Steve Ruman
Campbell coach Mike Szenborn knows exactly what Mahoning Valley high school boys basketball fans can expect from the upcoming season.
Well, sort of.
“I think we can expect the unexpected,” Szenborn said. “There are so many new faces and so many changes, it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen in our area. All new faces will lead to some interesting and exciting basketball.”
In fact, “change” seems to be the theme for 2012-13 season, which tips off tonight with a full slate of games.
Campbell is among 14 area schools which made coaching changes during the offseason. Szenborn guided the Red Devils’ girls program for the past four years before moving over to the boys side last spring.
Like many area coaches, Szenborn enters the season with a youthful and mostly inexperienced squad. The Devils return just three lettermen.
“It seems like we’re in the same boat as a lot of other teams,” Szenborn said. “You look at a lot of the teams that made a strong run last year, and for the most part they were senior-oriented. Now it’s time for the new crop of juniors and seniors to step up and make their mark.
“I think you’re going to see some wide open league races, which will be great for fans.”
Perhaps no school experienced more change during the off-season than Warren Harding. The Raiders last year went 21-4 and advanced to the regional finals. However, coach Steve Arnold left to take over the football program, and the team lost 94 percent of its scoring to graduation.
Andy Vlajkovich, who served as an assistant under Arnold a year ago, now guides the Raiders. His roster is completely void of lettermen.
“Some people thought I was crazy for taking this job because of the pressures that go with it,” Vlajkovich said. “But I want to coach at a place that puts a lot of emphasis on basketball and on success. The kids, the school, the community, they all strive to be the best.
“Trust me, I’m going to put more pressure on myself than anyone. I’m not worried about outside pressures.”
Despite the youth, Vlajkovich is encouraged about his team’s future. He noted both the junior varsity and freshmen teams enjoyed winning seasons last year. Also, he welcomed 77 athletes during tryouts.
“You have to remember that a lot of our bench players last year would have lettered at most other schools,” Vlajkovich said. “We’ll have to grow up quickly, as will a lot of other teams in our area.”
Ron Price is one of two area coaches returning to a program for a second stint. Price guided Niles from 1999 to 2006, compiling an 84-71 record during the seven-year stretch. He returns as the Dragons’ mentor this winter.
“Anytime you bring in a new system and bring in other changes to a program, there is going to be an adjustment period,” Price said. “It takes time for kids to adapt both physically and mentally, but we’ll be okay.
“It’s a long season, and these kids have plenty of time to adapt to our philosophies. With our inexperience, it will be a work in progress. But Niles always has tough kids who are willing to work.”
At McDonald, Jeff Rasile is back following a one-year hiatus. He led the Blue Devils for eight years, compiling a 164-28 record. When he stepped aside, the Devils were riding a 63-game regular-season winning streak.
Brian Danilov returns to the sidelines, this time at Cardinal Mooney. The former Campbell coach takes over for Chris Kohl, who is now at Mineral Ridge.
While at Campbell, Danilov won a Division III state championship (1993) and guided the Devils to six consecutive district titles.
“Great talent can make you look like a pretty darn good coach,” Danilov said. “I’ve always been blessed with great athletes who were dedicated to the game.
“We’re a pretty inexperienced group right now. But Mooney always produces talented, hard-working kids, so we’ll use that to our advantage.”
While many programs are in a rebuilding mode, such is not the case at LaBrae. Vikings coach Chad Kiser returns seven seniors, five lettermen and three starters from a squad which went 22-1 last season. Heading the list is perhaps the area’s top player, Peyton Aldridge.
Last year as just a sophomore, Aldridge was a first-team All-Ohio selection. He averaged 15 points, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, and 5.9 blocks per game.
“Chad is an outstanding player who works hard on all aspects of the game,” Kiser said. “He’s had roughly nine Division I offers, and he hasn’t even started his junior season yet. He is a rare talent who makes things easy on me as a coach.”
LaBrae’s early-season non-conference schedule includes games against Hubbard and Ursuline.
“Those games will be measuring sticks to see how we match up with some of the area’s better teams,” Kiser said. “We’ll find out early where we stand, and what we have to improve on.”
In addition to the numerous personnel changes, fans will also notice a new look to the schedules. The Ohio High School Athletic Association will allow schools to play 22 regular season games rather than 20 starting this year. This marks the first time the schedule has been expanded since 1979 when it was increased from 18 to 20 games.
Area coaches for the most part favor the expansion.
“It’s really not an issue. If anything, it provides more preparation for the tournament,” Szenborn said. “I’d rather play the two extra games than to have that lull during the holiday break.”
Danilov agreed, and in fact said he would be in favor of further expansion.
“Kids work their tails off, they deserve to play as much as they can,” Danilov said. “Some states play upwards of 30 games, and in the course of a high school career that really benefits the kids who will play at the next level.”
Kiser noted that players always favor games over practice sessions.
“As a coach, you want to get in as many practices as possible, but for the kids, it’s all about playing the game,” Kiser said. “The bottom line is that there is no real negative aspect to the change.”