The Woodward boys basketball team finished 10-10 record this season.
At first glance, that doesn't sound very impressive. What if we add a little background information?
The Woodward boys basketball team, which was 2-17 the year before, finished with a 10-10 record this season, the school's first 10-win campaign in 20 years.
There. Now that begins to put the achievements of this year's Polar Bears in perspective.
It also begins to explain why Woodward coach Paul Brzozka was named the City League's co-coach of the year - along with the coach of a team that went undefeated and was ranked first in the state in Division I.
“It's been a struggle [to reach double figures in wins],” said Brzozka, who finished his seventh year as head coach at Woodward. “I have to admit there were times I was discouraged. It took longer than I thought to get to this point, but it's definitely something to feel proud about.”
One of the factors that helped the Polar Bears reach the double-figure mark in wins was an infectious positive attitude. “Before the pre-season I figured we had a team that could do something,” junior Alex Malone said. “We were a more cohesive unit. We were all in it together, and there was a lot of unity.
“That was one of the main factors in our success.”
Senior co-captain Brandon Armour saw the same thing. “Before the pre-season we had big hopes for this team and how it could develop,” he said. “I thought we could finish in the top four in the City. As the season developed my opinion started to change, but I wasn't going to change my hopes.”
Armour's opinion changed in part because Woodward had a tortuous early season schedule, facing pre-season league favorites St. John's Jesuit and Scott, along with a tough Libbey squad, in the opening weeks of the season.
The Bears lost four of their first five games, but Brzozka saw some positive signs. “I thought a top four finish in the City [League] was a realistic goal, but we had such a tough early schedule,” he said. “I hoped we could get to the first of the year with at least a few wins under our belt so the kids wouldn't be demoralized.”
One valuable win was a six-point victory at Lake on Dec. 8. “That first win at Lake was important,” Brzozka said. “The team learned how to manage a game and hold a lead, and that victory gave us a different mindset.”
But the key to the season was a pair of victories in a tournament at Fayette during the holidays. “Those two wins at the Fayette Tournament turned our whole season around,” Brzozka said. “Our guys were proud as peacocks having won that tournament. You could see the confidence just build, and that came from winning.”
Brzozka said this new-found confidence became apparent every time the team was together. “Our practices were better, much sharper,” he explained. “Our kids worked harder. And it was because the kids saw a tangible result of their labor.”
Soon others began to see the improvement, too. Woodward posted a seven-point win over Start on Jan. 18, and that win spurred a strong finish that included victories in five of the Polar Bears' last seven regular-season games. The team's only losses in that span were at the hands of Findlay, the Great Lakes League's co-champs, and Central Catholic, one of four semi-finalists in the City League tournament.
Brzozka noticed an important change in his team before that game against the Fighting Irish. “When we played Central at Savage Hall, I could see in warmups that we had a little swagger,” he said. “We expected to win that game.”
Even though they didn't, Woodward rebounded to open the sectional tournament with a 19-point win over Start. That gave the school its first season with at least 10 victories since 1981-82.
“Those 10 wins were a big psychological barrier,” Brzozka said. “This breaks the cycle. Now the mindset of the kids is a lot better - they have something positive to look back and measure against.”
The 10-win season also gives this team's seniors a positive finish to their high school careers.
One of those seniors is Armour, who finished second in the City League in rebounds with 9.6 per contest; he also averaged 11.9 points per game, meaning he nearly averaged a double-double for the season. Both of those numbers become more impressive when you consider the 6-2 Armour played center for the Polar Bears -meaning he faced opponents who were as many as eight inches taller nearly every time he took the court.
“I like to bang, so I like being down in the low post,” Armour said. “I knew I had to out-work and out-hustle the taller guys. I had to play more of a mental game than a physical one.”
Brzozka felt he could not ask for more from Armour, his co-captain. “His rebound stats speak for themselves,” Brzozka said. “He also provided good leadership, and he was a positive influence on the group. He is such a fierce competitor, and he got the kids to play hard.”
Another senior, Antaun Murphy, finished second on the team in scoring (12.1) and also grabbed 4.9 rebounds per contest. “Antaun had some great nights, but consistency was a factor,” Brzozka said. “If he works on his strength, he has the ability to play at the next level.”
Brian Robinson and Dedron Harris were two seniors whose value to the team went beyond statistics. “Brian is a good student and very dependable - you can always count on him,” Brzozka said. “I could see him grow as a person from this year to last. He was solid, and every team has to have a player like him.
“And Dedron, I know deep down, was very disappointed with playing time. But he was always at practice, and I could always count on him, too. In fact, the other coaches and I voted him [the winner of] the team's Coaches Award for his contributions to the team - he was just as valuable to this team as anyone.”
The team's fifth senior, Raashawn Haire, was part of the team's guard rotation along with junior O'Dante Harris. “O'Dante really came on midway through the season,” Brzozka said. “He was swinging back and forth from JV to varsity early in the season, but he had a great work ethic in practice and the experience he gained at the JV level elevated his game.
“Raashawn also was in the guard rotation with O'Dante, and the two of them pushed one another. That made both of them better.”
Junior Lorenzo Bester also was a part of the guard rotation, starting at the point. “Lorenzo is very quick and a good penetrator, and he's good defensively when he wants to be,” Brzozka said. “He's going to get better because he'll improve his shooting and become more of an outside threat.”
Junior Terrell Carey saw playing time because of his defensive prowess. “Terrell played at the three, and even though he is just 5-10 he is still our best defensive player,” Brzozka said. “We always gave him the assignment of guarding the other team's best player. He's a great competitor, very athletic, and was an integral part of the team.”
James Hyslop is a junior whom Brzozka said is constantly improving. “James always is there in the summer, and even though he has some things to work on in his game he's a solid player whose best days are to come,” Brzozka said.
The team's fifth junior was Malone, who led the team with 15.3 points per contest, sixth-best in the City League.
“Alex is going to be a very good college player,” Brzozka said. “Plus he's a good student, which makes him an even more attractive player.
``He needs to work on his strength, but he's a great outside shooter who is working to improve his defense.”
While Polar Bear fans were disappointed by the post-season awards given by the City League - Malone was named to the second team, while Armour and Murphy received only honorable mention - everyone around the program took pride in this year's performance.
But was it really that big of a deal to reach 10 wins?
Malone, Armour, and Brzozka all agreed that the answer was a resounding yes. “We set a standard for Woodward,” Armour said. “Next year people will be looking at a team that did well in the past, and they'll know it's a team that they can't slouch against.” Malone agreed, adding, “This year we set a bar. Next year we will try to get past that bar.”
And Brzozka confirmed it. “You can't overstate how valuable it was for us to reach 10 wins,” he said. “If our student body is paying attention, it sends a message to them and the community that we can be competitive.”