If it's even possible at this point, the West Liberty men's basketball team might have snuck up on some people last season.
The Hilltoppers entered the 2011-12 campaign minus four players who scored 1,000-plus points in their career and advanced to the NCAA Division II Final Four.
Proving once again that the 'system' works, all the Runnin' Hilltoppers did was win 32 games, the WVIAC regular-season title, tournament title, qualified for, hosted and won the regional and advanced to the Division II Elite 8 at Northern Kentucky University before falling in the quarterfinals, 91-90, to Stonehill University.
Not bad for a team that was predicted by many to be good, but not great and maybe finish middle of the pack in the WVIAC.
"Last year was a surprise," said Hilltoppers' coach Jim Crutchfield. "We didn't really look at it as a rebuilding year, but we had a lot of new faces to blend in. We thought we could have had a decent year, but nothing at all like we did."
Though he was surprised and happy with the accomplishments, that last game has bothered him for a while.
"I was disappointed with how we played," Crutchfield said. "I thought the field at the regional was comparable and we played great basketball to get there. We were happy to get there, but I expected us to play at a higher level. We realize how incredibly hard it is to even get there and that only one team there is going to go home happy, but it was still disappointing."
So as practice for the upcoming season, which begins on Nov. 9 against Urbana at Cedarville College, got under way last weekend, Crutchfield welcomed back all five starters and nine lettermen and was voted the No. 1 Division II team in America by a poll, meaning there will be absolutely no sneaking up on anyone.
"I'm always excited for basketball season," Crutchfield said. "Obviously, we've seen the polls, expectations are high and a lot of people think we'll be pretty good."
The Hilltoppers, who employ the run, press and shoot system better than anyone, scored at 102.4 points per game clip last season and with all five starters and a deep bench, including some heralded recruits, the numbers could - and should - go up even higher this winter.
"We do play a little bit different than most teams," Crutchfield said. "Generally, it takes longer for players to become comfortable in our system, but we've been able to blend guys and do well. We've got seven guys who were in our rotation at the end of the season back, plus some newcomers pushing for minutes."
As always, the biggest question for Crutchfield is how do you keep all of these guys happy?
"We're not going to be able to keep them all happy," Crutchfield said. "It's not even a possibility, but we're coaching good kids and they understand the situation. We're not going to use a real deep rotation. We feel the key for us to win is finding the most consistent group of guys."
The Hilltoppers will be led by senior Alex Falk, who was an All-American last season averaging 18 points a game. Cedric Harris is one of the players who grew more and more comfortable as the season went along. The former Zanesville Blue Devil netted almost 16 points per night.
C.J. Hester was nearly a double-double guy with 14.4 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Two seniors - Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfeld - were slowed in the summer and fall because of injuries. Both are back with the team and rounding back into form.
The upcoming season will also be the Hilltoppers' last in the WVIAC because of the creation of Mountain East Conference.
"I grew up in West Virginia and I've always been a WVIAC guy," Crutchfield said. "We've won three straight conference championships and we've enjoyed our time. Hopefully, we can make a run at winning the last championship."
Crutchfield believes the WVIAC could go out with a bang as several teams have loaded up and they're coming off an impressive season.
"I think the conference will be strong again," Crutchfield said. "Fairmont, Charleston, Wheeling Jesuit have all got a load of talent."
As the Hilltoppers continue to rattle off victories with this 'system,' Crutchfield has been swamped with coaches from all over the country wanting to steal some of it to implement in their own programs.
"I had a high school coach from New Mexico call wanting me to send him tapes of what we do," Crutchfield said. "Everyone wants to score points, but I tell coaches I don't really have a specific system that I have down on paper to say that we do this, this and this. It's really flattering that so many schools want to see what we're doing."
Wanting to keep his practices open to area high school coaches, but also wanting to make sure he and his team get their work done, Crutchfield has set up Friday as a day when prep coaches can come and watch the Hilltoppers practice.
While prep coaches will get a glimpse early, Ohio Valley basketball fans won't get their first glimpse of the high-powered Hilltoppers until Nov. 20 when West Virginia Wesleyan comes to the ASRC.
Our best advice for area hoop fans: make a trip to West Liberty, you won't be disappointed.
ZABORNIAK LEAVES OHSAA
This past week I fielded a few phone calls from prep sports officials past and present about whether I knew anything about Hank Zabornik, who oversaw officials at the OHSAA, leaving the association.
OHSAA Director of Information Services Tim Stried confirmed to me late this week that Zaborniak had left, but it was an internal matter.
"I can tell you that (Zaborniak's) departure was amicable and the OHSAA wishes him well in his future endeavors. He was an important part of the OHSAA's leadership team for many years, that's for sure."
Zaborniak has left the OHSAA after working for the state's governing body of prep sports since 1989. He was promoted to assistant commissioner in 1995.
Zaborniak's departure was first reported last Friday by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which reported the Beau Rugg had been hired as the interim replacement.
Zaborniak, who officiated football in the Big Ten, also worked games as an NFL Replacement official this season.
The timing of the decision is extremely bizarre with football tournaments beginning soon and wrestling season just around the corner. He was slated to be the director of the OHSAA's new dual state wrestling tournament.
LAST SUNDAY, in this space, we featured Wheeling Central product Doug Wojcik, who is now the head coach at the College of Charleston. The College of Charleston made a decision to leave the Southern Conference on Friday to head to Colonial Athletic Association, starting in 2013-14.
We reached Wojcik via email Friday afternoon and he said, "I'm okay with it."
Wojcik played in the CAA during his collegiate days at the Naval Academy.
IT'S HARD to believe, but girls' basketball practice begins on Friday around the Buckeye State.