Who are the Wellington Dukes? With seven seniors and a wealth of varsity experience, they entered the season under first-year coach Dan Gundert as a contender for the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division championship.
Along the way, the expectations started to change as they drew comparisons to the 1985-86 Wellington team. Both teams dropped their season opener, enjoyed a double-digit winning streak and shared the conference title with their archrival.
However, the comparisons stop there.
The 1985-86 team split its season series with rival Oberlin, which went on to win the state title that year, and finished 18-2, the best regular-season record in school history. This year’s Dukes were swept by rival Keystone twice in overtime, including the season finale that dropped them to 17-3.
According to Keystone coach Greg Morgan, the comparison should be with a different Wellington team.
“They’re in the Top 10 category for teams I’ve faced,” Morgan said. “I think this year’s Wellington team is the most physical-minded Wellington team I’ve faced. They compare to some of the Midview and Avon teams of the mid-2000s. They are athletic and deep with a good mix of size. They remind me, from my playing days, of the ’84 team with (Joe) Rittenhouse, (Rich) Hyde, (Ken) Bender, (John) Simon and (Bob) Jungbluth.”
The 1983-84 team was also senior heavy, went 16-4 in the regular season and had a deeper run in the tournament than the 1985-86 squad.
The Roger Eckenwiler-coached squad won its first three tournament games to advance to the AA district final in Elyria, where the Dukes waged a classic battle with coach Jim Lawhead and Lorain Catholic before falling 70-66 in overtime.
Yet, despite the comparisons, the question remains: Just ho are these Dukes?
“They’re a heck of a ball team,” Brookside coach Brent Schremp said. “Dan has done a great job in his first year as the head coach. The same type of effort and drive that he brought onto the court as a player is being brought as the head coach.”
Gundert admits he was never the most athletic player on either his Wellington or Baldwin-Wallace teams. Whatever shortcomings he felt he had, however, he overcame the only way he knew how — with hard work.
That drive to be the best made him work as hard if not harder than his teammates. Now he’s tried to install that same philosophy on his team.
“Coach does a great job at bringing out the best of us,” said senior Zac Gilbert, who is averaging 4.7 points and 3.9 rebounds. “We aren’t the best shooting, most athletic or quickest team out there. But we put a lot of work in improving all aspects of our game individually and as a team.”
“We play as hard as we can,” said senior Brady Shaw, who averages 10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. “We can’t leave anything to chance or rest on any accomplishments. We’re the team that other teams want to prove something against. We can’t afford to take a quarter off, let alone a night.”
OK, so the Dukes are physical and work hard. But who are they?
“They’re one of the better teams I’ve seen in this area in years,” Firelands coach Steve Lias said. “I saw the 1985-86 team play and I think this is the best Wellington team I’ve come across as a player or a coach. This team is for real. They’re balanced, deep and have a hard-nosed attitude.”
Wellington’s depth and balance, along with the hard work and physicality, make it a dangerous foe. At tournament time, coaches tend to shorten their bench. That won’t be the case at Wellington, however, where 10 of its 12 players have played significant minutes in at least 17 games.
The Dukes’ depth was on full display against Norwayne. Wellington had six-point lead against the Bobcats with just under three minutes to go in the third quarter. With a couple of Wellington players saddled with three fouls, Gundert went the rest of the quarter with all of his starters on the bench.
The result was a 45-38 lead entering the fourth quarter. The bench not only held serve, it increased the lead by a point.
“It’s not uncommon for us to go through the entire roster during the game,” said reserve Dylan Weidrick, who averages nearly 12 minutes of playing time per game. “Everyone knows that coach Gundert could call our name at any moment and in any situation. We have to be ready to go whether it’s for one minute or five.”
With everything the Dukes have accomplished this season, they believe a long and memorable run in the tournament stands before them.
But there’s a definite question mark: Keystone.
Wellington got a pass on the first game against the Wildcats, an epic 52-49 double-overtime loss. The second meeting left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth associated with the maroon and white. With Wellington coming off its win over Norwayne and with a chance to clinch the PAC Stars Division outright, the Dukes lost to the Wildcats again.
What made the hurt all the more painful for Wellington was that Keystone’s best player, and arguably the best in the county, Caleb Shillace, was sidelined after undergoing an appendectomy.
The Dukes even had a 36-29 lead entering the fourth quarter only to fall 66-61 in overtime.
“There’s no excuse, we blew that game,” said Jason Perry, who is averaging team-highs of 14.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists. “Keystone came out with a lot of intensity and emotion. We didn’t match it and it cost us a shot at the conference title outright.
“It won’t happen again.”
“I’ve watched that (second) game against Keystone over and over,” Gundert said. “We lost to a good team. They took us out of our game and controlled the tempo. I accept the blame for that. I should have had our guys ready for everything and I didn’t.
“We’ll use that game as a learning tool for us. I’ll use it as a learning tool for me.”
So after 20 games, the Dukes enter the Division III sectional-district tournament in Wooster as the No. 3 seed and as PAC co-champs. They have 17 wins, including one over a state-ranked opponent, and they have the respect of more than a few opposing coaches.
And they have two painful losses to their archrival.
So the question remains: Who are these Dukes?
“We’re a good basketball team with work to be done,” Gundert said. “We want to be remembered as a great team, a special team. We want to be the first Wellington team to win a district championship. We’re still writing the story of who we are.
“Hopefully, the ending doesn’t come anytime soon.”
Contact Hans Schneider at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.