A Division III Wooster District championship last season might just be the beginning for coach Kurt Russell and this Oberlin Phoenix team.
They finished 19-7 in 2015-16, including postseason play, defeating Waynedale in the district final before falling to St. Thomas Aquinas 87-80 in a double-overtime instant classic in the regional semifinal.
Oberlin led by five in that game with one minute to play in the fourth quarter.
When thinking of the close defeat, Russell said it was a game that should have been won but will serve as a learning experience.
“We can’t rely on old videos to inspire us,” he said. “We have to be inspired by just trying to be the best Oberlin basketball team possible. I think the kids are buying into that.”
Russell is entering his 10th season at Oberlin and welcomes back all five starters from last year as well as his sixth man.
“Hopefully we can take another step and be a little more competitive this year,” he said. “Over the summer last year, we really worked hard to improve our skills and knew we had a competitive and talented team. Last year wasn’t really a matter of catching the league off guard, we just played very well.”
With a 12-4 conference record last year, the team finished second to Clearview in the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division. Caleb Hughley and Donald Johnson were both named First Team All-PAC after averaging 14.4 and 12.4 points per game, respectively.
Zion Hicks was named Second Team All-PAC and will be expected to form the nucleus of the Phoenix along with Johnson, Hughley, and fellow senior David Payne III.
“Our strengths are that senior leadership, being very quick, and shooting the ball very well,” said Russell. “If I had to point out any weakness it’s that we’re so small and depth could be an issue in a few spots.”
He said junior Devin Yarber and senior Kurt Russell Jr. could also be ready to step into larger roles this season.
“Those will be our two young men coming off of the bench who can really help us,” he said. “If they and a few others can step up in big spots it may make it so depth isn’t an issue after all.”
On the challenges of keeping a team focused in the face of newfound success, Russell said it’s all about staying focused and realizing last year’s success doesn’t automatically carry into this season.
“We always preach that you can’t be content or satisfied with what happened last year,” he said. “Each year is unique and it brings about new opportunities and challenges. We really have to keep looking toward what’s at hand and take it one game at a time. We want to be the best team we can be each play.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.