An 0-2 start to the season wasn’t what Oberlin coach Kurt Russell expected from his defending Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division champs.
But that’s what he got.
Things improved slightly as Oberlin won its next two games, only to fall to 2-4 following back-to-back losses to Columbia and Elyria. Since then the Phoenix has been one of the hottest teams in the area, winning 10 of its last 11 games to improve to 12-5.
The lone loss was to Elyria Catholic, which is hot in its own right with a five-game winning streak.
So what’s been the difference? According to Russell, it all comes down to chemistry and believing in the program.
“We had the same thing happen last year,” Russell said. “Kids think they have it all figured out and after losing a few games they realize that they don’t. All of a sudden they start believing in what we, as coaches, are saying and things click.
“Once they bought into everything, the wins started coming like we knew they would.”
Russell credits his five returning seniors as being the catalyst to the team’s turnaround. Four of the seniors — Jason Moore, Marcus Bailey, Noland Isom and DeShaun Horton — are starters. All four have contributed in various ways on and off the floor, but it’s been Moore and Bailey who have stood out.
“Jason has been the glue that keeps us together,” Russell said. “He keeps everyone focused and in line with what we’re doing as a team. Marcus has been a pleasant surprise. He’s stepped forward as a senior and taken on a leadership role.
“Both of them have done a great job for us.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Bailey.
“We have all grown up together,” said Bailey, who is averaging 12 points and six rebounds. “We all played biddy basketball and at Park Street. We know each other and which buttons we need to push to get each other going.”
If Oberlin wants to have any shot of defending its title, a win tonight against Columbia is a must. The Raiders beat the Phoenix 63-51 six weeks ago and have the best record in the county at 15-1, 10-0 in the PAC.
“Columbia did a number on us the first time we played them,” Bailey said. “They’re a great team and it’s going to take everything we have to beat them. We know that we need to win and get some help from other teams if we want to have a shot at our division.
“We tend to play better in big games and right now there is no game bigger than this one. So we’ll see what happens and move on from there.”
Oberlin isn’t the only area team to recover from a slow start.
After going 9-12 last year, the Elyria Catholic Panthers were expected to be a player in the West Shore Conference. After all, they returned five seniors along with junior Jeremy Holley, who led the team in scoring and rebounding last season. But Holley suffered a broken leg during football season and first-year coach Jason Smith had to scramble his plans for both ends of the floor.
The initial results weren’t pretty.
The Panthers went 1-4 to start the season and were still struggling at 3-7. With games against Bay, Oberlin, Elyria and Midview coming up it appeared the Panthers would be looking at another sub-.500 record and an early end to a season that looked so promising just four months earlier.
Well, somebody forgot to tell the Panthers that because they’ve put together a five-game winning streak to push their record to 8-7 overall and 5-4 in the WSC.
It’s also bolstered their outlook on the season and put them right where Smith expected them to be.
“All the credit goes to the players,” Smith said. “It would have been very easy for them to give up when we were 3-7. But our senior leadership has been phenomenal. Danny Whitacre and John Stursa have really led the way on and off the floor.
“They rallied the team and the team responded.”
Aside from the players staying the course, the Panthers’ defense has settled down after giving up tons of points early and the offense has gone from forcing shots to exhibiting patience.
“We’re playing good basketball right now,” said Tyler Riddell, who averages team-highs of 14 points and two steals. “I think we all tried to do too much early on instead of just relying on each other. It really hurt us on both ends of the floor, and once we realized it we started playing better.”
“We figured things would come around at some point,” said Whitacre, who is averaging 10 points and five rebounds. “Losing Jeremy was a big thing and it was an adjustment for us. Coach had to find the pieces that worked best for us and we had to trust that.
“It just wasn’t going to happen overnight.”
Smith called the win over Elyria a “make-or-break game” for the Panthers. It kept the streak alive at four and gave the Panthers some confidence going forward that they can play and beat anybody.
“Without a doubt, Elyria is the best team we will face in the regular season or the tournament,” Smith said. “It changed the outlook on the rest of the season. We can tell the kids that they’ve beaten the best team on the schedule. Now we need to build on that moving forward.”
EC avoided a letdown following the win over the Pioneers, downing Midview 61-54.
“We’re not the same team we were earlier in the year,” said Stursa, who is averaging 11 points and five rebounds. “We’re playing better and have more confidence going into games. However, we still need to go on the court and get the win. Nobody is going to back down from us just because we beat somebody or we win a bunch of games in a row.
“We know that people will be ready for us and we have to be ready for them.”
Player of the week
Garrett Klekota, Amherst
- Year: Junior
- Position: Point guard
- Last week: Nearly outscored North Olmsted by himself in a 44-30 win, going for a then career-high 28 points with four rebounds, four steals and three assists. Then hit six 3-pointers and finished with a new career-high of 30 points four nights later in a 64-56 loss to Westlake in which he also had three rebounds, three assists and one steal.
- Bio: The three-year letterwinner is averaging 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals for the season. Plays AAU ball for TNBA out of Avon and estimates he spends 20 hours a week playing basketball outside of high school. Enjoys hanging with his friends and studying — he has a 4.1 grade-point average. His favorite NBA team is the Cavs and his favorite player is Kyrie Irving.
- Future plans: Would like to play basketball and major in engineering for an Ivy League school.
- Parents: Alan and Tammy
Contact Hans Schneider at email@example.com with player of the week nominations and to submit items for this notebook. Send submissions by Wednesday at 8 a.m.