By DAVE HANNEMAN
Playing Toledo Whitmer on its home floor is always a challenge.
Put a chip on the Panthers’ collectively broad shoulders and the task becomes even tougher.
Despite splitting its two league games with Toledo St. Francis last season, then winning the rubber match with the Knights in the district tournament, Toledo Whitmer was picked to finish second to St. Francis in a preseason poll of league coaches.
St. Francis received four first-place votes in the balloting and compiled 59 points. Whitmer got two first-place votes and was a close second with 57 points. Toledo St. John’s, the perennial power in the TRAC, got the other two first place nods and was third (47) in point totals.
Toledo Whitmer, which returns three three-year starters from a 21-5 team that reached the Division I regional semifinals, might be looking to prove a point — and make a statement — when the Panthers host Findlay on Friday in the TRAC opener for both teams.
“They’ve been building to this for a couple of years,” said Findlay High coach Jim Rucki.
“They’ve got three guys who started as sophomores, and another who played a lot as a sophomore. They’ve got a nice team. They feel this is their year.”
Whitmer gave an indication of its potential over the weekend when the Panthers posted a 30-point win (87-57) over a Toledo Rogers team one night after Rogers knocked of Toledo St. John’s (47-38).
Whitmer returns two all-TRAC players in 6-foot-5 senior wings Eddie Colbert and Leon Hughs. Colbert averaged 13.3 points and 6.1 rebounds as a first-team all-league pick in 2017-18; Hughs earned second-team all-TRAC honors after averaging 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Trey Syroka, a 5-10 senior point guard who averaged 6.6 points and 5.5 assists, is also a three-year starter. Another senior wing, Areon Evans, averaged 6.8 points and 4 rebounds, also returns, and the Panthers have a powerful presence in the post in Cavon Butler, a 6-3, 280-pound senior who passed up offers from Ohio State and Alabama to sign a football scholarship with Kentucky.
As impressive as Whitmer’s offensive numbers were in its opener against Toledo Rogers, Rucki says its the Panthers’ defense that can be the most disruptive.
“Last year they were tremendous defensively,” Rucki said.
“They do a good job with their length and their athleticism. They just want to come out and smother you so you have to be solid, you have to be strong with the ball and you have to cut hard.”
Findlay brings a 1-1 record into the contest, rebounding from a season-opening 66-49 loss to Toledo Start with a 77-53 win over Toledo Woodward on Monday.
“We played a lot more relaxed. We played more comfortably and confidently,” said Rucki, who this season has started two sophomores and a freshman alongside returning all-league veterans Ryan Nunn (1st-team) and Ryan Roth (2nd-team).
“It’s always about the speed of the game. The first game everything is moving too fast, and if you have even a little bit of jitters it speeds things up even faster.
“Hopefully, we’ve overcome that. You never know what you’ve got until things get going. We’re still not where we want to be. We still have questions we need to answer.
“The kids are working hard and we’ve had a couple of really good practices. We have to keep working on little fundamental things and try to get better every day, because it’s a long season.”
Findlay continues league play next week when the Trojans host Toledo Central Catholic on Tuesday and travel to Oregon Clay next Friday.
Findlay faces a busy schedule right before the Christmas break with three games over a five-day span. The Trojans will host Lima Bath on Dec. 18 and Fremont Ross in a TRAC matchup on Dec. 21, then travel to Defiance for a nonleague game on Dec. 22.