It's been a long time coming for Oak Harbor.
After winning a combined 21 games in the previous seven seasons, the Rockets appear to have things headed in the right direction as they've started the year 7-5 and are 4-2 in the Sandusky Bay Conference, good for third in the league.
What's the reason for the turnaround?
Quite simply, the team has a renewed spirit for the game that is based upon their work ethic and desire to turn around a once-proud program that has fallen on hard times recently.
Coach Eric Sweet, who took over before the 2011-12 season, is the fifth coach Oak Harbor had in 10 years. In high school was coached by his father, David, a legend in Ohio high school basketball circles, was at the helm at Ottawa-Glandorf from 1980-2006. His teams went 449-161 (.736) over 26 years and won a Division II state title in 2005. Eric went on to play collegiately at Bluffton University.
Eric Sweet has tried to take some of what he learned from his father and instill that within his kids.
“I've been pretty blunt with my kids,” Sweet said. “I told them that Oak Harbor is perceived a certain way. We've won 21 games and finished last or second-to-last in the league the last seven years. The only way to change things is by working your tail off.
“It's about putting in the time, effort and focus in for change. You can't hope for change, you have to make it happen. They're job is to come in and practice hard and play hard, and they've done that for me. My job is to draw up some plays, put in some good sets and prepare them and put them in the best situation. These kids have bought into the fact that you've got to put forth the effort. If you put a lot of time and effort into it and you'll get rewarded.”
The team is led by the senior trio of A.J. Cecil, Greg Haar and Austin Wiegand, all of whom are three-year letter winners. Behind their leadership and play, Oak Harbor has become established as a force to be reckoned within the SBC.
Cecil and Haar, who lead the team in scoring at 13 and 12.3 points per game, respectively, both run the point and are good shooters who can score from beyond the arc.
Wiegand is something of a jack-of-all-trades kind of player, an undersized 6-foot-2 power forward who can play nearly every position on the floor. But because of the team's lack of height, Wiegand is forced to play in the post even though he's more of a wing. He's accepted the challenge, averaging 8.3 points while usually playing against bigger, taller opponents.
The player that does the dirty work, Wiegand hustles, rebounds and plays with effort, often doing things for the team that don't show up in the box score. His best game this season came in the opener against Ottawa County rival Port Clinton when Wiegand led all scorers with 20 points in the Rockets' 52-46 win over the Redskins. It was an especially important win because it was Oak Harbor's first in 10 seasons against its cross town rival.
According to Haar, he, Cecil and Wiegand want to leave a legacy.
“When A.J., Austin and I were in middle school,” Haar said, “we kept saying that we were going to turn this program around. Before games, we talk about getting this program moving, and we're working our tails off. When you're working hard, you're winning games.”
The Rockets primarily employ a three guard system that features a starting lineup of Haar and Cecil in the backcourt with sophomore Cole Weirich and Wiegand and Josh Sarahman in the frontcourt at power forward and center, respectively.
The team also has four consistent contributors off the bench in guards Andy Rathbun and Derek Wood and forwards Sam Laderach and Andrew Benner. Rathbun has come on as of late, averaging 9.5 points in the last four games and Wood provides a solid defensive presence. Laderach, meanwhile, is often on the floor during crunch time and Benner has played a key role at various times during the season.
“Some of the players that are not offensively dominant step it up on defense,” Haar said. “Cole is a pain (for the other team) and he's getting steals. (A.J. and I) get the points, but it is Cole and Woody bringing the energy. Andy has hit some shots, he'll attack the rim and he's always hustling and Austin is not very big in the post but he works his tail. The same with Sam and Josh and Andrew. There's a lot of energy with us. You've got to control what you can control.”
Already, Oak Harbor has exceeded expectations, more than doubling its win total (3) from last season after being projected to finish seventh in the league.
Sweet is hoping this continues.
“I do get to see these guys grow and hopefully go off to college and have successful careers,” Sweet said. “I love the kids, I love how they're playing. They've earned it. I'm happy to hear (the compliments) from people about our play. They're doing good things and they're winning games. I'm proud of them.”
In the conference, The Rockets currently sit behind Perkins (7-0), a D-II regional finalist last season, and Huron (6-2). Oak Harbor is a half-game ahead of Sandusky St. Mary Central Catholic (4-3) and one game ahead of Clyde (3-3). Oak Harbor defeated SMCC on the road, 57-48, on Dec. 28 and play the Panthers at home on Feb. 22. Their two upcoming games with the Clyde Fliers, which are on Feb. 1 (away) and Feb. 23 (home), will likely determine where the Rockets finish in the league standings.