BY YANEEK SMITH, BEACON CONTRIBUTOR
A star-studded lineup, an experienced senior class and a commitment to defense has the Oak Harbor boys basketball team in the midst of one of its most successful seasons in recent history. The Rockets are 15-3 and 6-2 in the Sandusky Bay Conference’s Bay Division, just a half game behind Willard (19-2, 7-2) for first place.
Oak Harbor has five seniors in its starting lineup. Jac Alexander (18.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) is the point guard, Blake Booker (11.7 ppg) and Clay Schulte (7.4 ppg) are the wings and Gage Brough (4.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Gabe Dowling (9.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) man the post. Some of the key reserves are Will Dowling, Tyler May, Colin Ish and Anthony Stewart.
While defense is head coach Eric Sweet’s calling card, he has a unit that can create headaches for opposing defenses.
“We are a tough matchup. We have a lot of right pieces — Gage Brough is a good stretch four and the Dowling twins have size. We have a four-year starter in Jac Alexander, Blake Booker is a good shooter, Clay Schulte can shoot the ball, Colin Ish can do a little bit, and there’s also Anthony Stewart and Tyler May,” said Sweet. “We have pieces that fit together, and we’re able to play off each other. If they take away Blake Booker, that means we have a one-on-one for the Dowling twins. If they double one of the Dowlings, we have a lane for Gage Brough.”
The Dowlings transferred to Oak Harbor from Clyde during the offseason, and were an integral part of the football team’s run to the final four. Now they’re a valuable presence in the post for the basketball team.
The Rockets’ three losses have come at the hands of some very good teams. There were last-second losses, one in overtime to Huron (59-57) and another to the Crimson Flashes (44-43). A 79-72 defeat came at the hands of Cardinal Stritch, one of Northwest Ohio’s best teams.
“We’re two 3-pointers away from winning two games; we had opportunities to win both of those games. We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Sweet. “We also know we have left something on the table. We are still hungry. Even with our two losses (in the league), we were still able to beat Huron on the road and Willard at home. We’re tied for first with two games left. We set winning the league as a goal.”
The 67-60 overtime win over the Tigers was the high point of the season for Oak Harbor. The Rockets trailed by 22 points late in the third quarter before the defense took over. Oak Harbor forced 16 turnovers in the second half and held Huron to 10 points in the final 12 minutes.
Michael Holm hit a 3-pointer with 4:46 to play to give the Tigers a 56-44 lead, but the Rockets responded with an 11-0 run. May tied the score at 58-58 when he drained a 3-pointer with 1:12 remaining. In overtime, Oak Harbor scored all nine of its points from the charity stripe.
Alexander led the way with 22 points, Booker scored 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and Schulte scored 13 points.
“We have a group of kids, and it starts with the seniors, that just have toughness and a competitive spirit. No matter the deficit, they firmly believe that if they work hard and come together, we can come back. We still had this belief that we were in the game no matter what,” said Sweet, who played college basketball at Bluffton University.
“In the third quarter, it didn’t look pretty. We hit the 3-pointer to tie it up and we had so much confidence (going into overtime). If you keep working hard and keep believing, you’ve got a chance to win. They never were afraid of the moment; they never rolled over and gave in.”
Save for three close wins over Carey (57-51), Huron (67-60) and Willard (49-48), the Rockets have won all of their games by wide margins. One of the most impressive wins was a 76-62 victory over Old Fort, the Stockaders’ only loss of the season.
Despite the offensive firepower, Oak Harbor is winning as much because of its defense.
“I’m a defensive-minded coach. I wasn’t an elite scorer (when I played), but I knew I could have an impact by playing good defense. This year, we changed a couple things defensively, we wanted to be more aggressive. We did a great job of that this year. We deny one pass, (and) we make it hard for teams to run their offense,” said Sweet. “We do a really great job of that.
“You’ve got to have a dude like Clay Schulte who can defend anybody. He does a phenomenal job of getting after it and shutting people down. On the flip side, our three guards are all averaging about three steals per game. These kids are playing extremely hard. We talk about trying to get three stops in a row in practice, and in a game. If you get three stops in a row, you’ll always be in the game.”
The program has been experiencing an upswing in the last three years. The Rockets won their first sectional title in nearly 20 years in 2018 and are on the verge of winning their first league title in nearly 20 years. Over the last three years, Oak Harbor has gone 48-18 (.727).
“I think the program is in a good place. Any program is built off players. Right now, I have great players, but I’m not taking anything away from my other players. I’ve been here for a while. The players know me, and I’ve seen them grow up,” said Sweet. “In every program, (you need) a good point guard, a good post player, and a good shooter. Right now, we have that.
“I’m excited for the kids. We have great kids that work hard. We’re going to keep working to get better and better.”