When Whitmer boys basketball coach Bruce Smith went with a youth movement two seasons ago sometimes tackling the tough City League grind with four or five sophomores in his starting lineup he was seeking a long-term payoff.
This season, with a lineup stocked with veteran talent, Whitmer is enjoying the fruits of that hard-won experience.
The all-senior starting five includes Purdue-bound guard Ryne Smith (Bruce s son) and Michigan football signee Kevin Koger, who each joined the varsity as freshmen, plus third-year varsity players Antwan Willis, Jeremy Jones and Beau Norton.
We did see potential, coach Smith said. There was size, they played together, there was some athleticism and they were competitive. We knew, with some experience and maturation, that we would be a lot better as seniors.
The Panthers (14-3, 8-2 CL), who won 62-54 Tuesday at Findlay, have already clinched a semifinal spot in next week s league playoffs entering tomorrow s league finale at home against Waite.
It s a group that s incredibly unselfish, coach Smith said. They are each other s biggest fans. As a coach, and as a father of one of them, it makes me real happy to see that they all care about the success and the welfare of the others.
The 6-foot-3 Smith, who leads the team in scoring at 18.4 points per game, is a long-range bomber who garnered a scholarship offer from Purdue after his impressive showing in AAU summer tournament action. He averages 3.8 assists.
We definitely got kicked around our sophomore year, but that was good for us, Ryne said. It was good to play against the veteran guys who were in the league then. Now we know what to do down the stretch in a game because we re experienced. It helps in the clutch situations when the game is on the line. If we play our roles and play as hard as we can, we re going to be tough to beat.
If Smith is Mr. Outside for the Panthers, the 6-3 Willis is Mr. Inside. Willis has scored 13.8 points per game and leads Whitmer in rebounding (9.1).
Sophomore year wasn t that good, but we learned from that, Willis said. Junior year we were all right. This year we learned how to play together, how to be patient on offense and how to play defense. It s all comingtogether now.
Jones, a 6-0 guard averaging 7.3 points and 2.9 assists, may not fill up a stat sheet, but his contributions are not lost on his coach.
Jeremy is our unsung hero, coach Smith said. Every night he relishes the job of guarding the other team s best player. We don t ask a lot of him in terms of scoring, but we ask a lot of him handling the basketball. So he s got to be at high concentration defensively and offensively, and I just don t take him out very often because he s so valuable.
I know if I do my job then all the rest of the players will take care of theirs, Jones said. Then it usually carries over to a win. We don t care if it s by a buzzer-beater or it s by 10 or 15 points.
The 6-4, 225-pound Koger s true calling may be on the football field, but he also commands a physical presence alongside Willis in the frontcourt. He averages 6.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.
My sophomore year I think we thought we were better than what we really were, Koger said. When we started playing we found out we really weren t that good. Last year we almost had a chance to get in [playoffs], but we fell apart. This year we knew what we did wrong and we know more about the game. It s like second nature to us.
I feel we re more mentally tough than we were. We know what it takes to win now in close games. It just comes with age.
Norton s strength is versatility.
By his own admission, Beau is our garbage man, coach Smith said. He ll score when we need him to score. In years past he wasn t physically mature enough to handle a difficult defensive assignment. That certainly has changed. I can plug him in at either guard or at power forward. He gives me more options as a coach.
The 6-2 Norton adds 5.9 points a contest.
I ve got to pick up the slack, Norton said. We ve been trying to become a team and we re finally all clicking together. It shows with our record.
We ve learned each other s weaknesses and what we can depend on each other for. We ve got a better feel for each other. We ve got the feeling of winning and we just want to continue it.
This is Whitmer s first CL playoff berth since it joined the league for the 2003-04 season.
Two years ago, the Panthers started 0-7 before taking a 55-54 win over Central Catholic. They would finish 5-16 (3-8 CL). Last season they climbed to 12-9, 6-5 but still no playoffs.
If you start four sophomores in the City League it s going to be difficult, coach Smith said. Last year, we still didn t beat the top-notch teams on our schedule, but we were competitive in those games.
This year, we knew we d be a little better, but we didn t how that would equate into wins, because even our non-league schedule has been difficult.
One former Whitmer player, senior David Sweeney, transferred to Scott. That departure has meant little to a Panther group that was not to be denied in its climb.
Whitmer opened 4-0, including key CL wins out of the gate against playoff contenders St. Francis (67-53) and Central (58-56). After falling 53-41 at St. John s on Dec. 21, the Panthers sandwiched three dramatic victories around a humbling 72-39 loss at Libbey.
On Dec. 29, Norton hit a last-second 3-pointer in a 68-66 win against Mentor. On Jan. 4, Koger sank a last-second five-footer from the lane to beat visiting Start 50-48. Then, after the loss at Libbey, Willis banked in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to provide a 70-69 victory at Scott on Jan. 11. Whitmer prevailed 51-49 in a non-league game against 14-3 Southview.
If the Panthers beat Waite tomorrow they will play in the8:30 p.m. CL semifinal Tuesday at Savage Hall, most likely against St. John s. If they lose to Waite, they will play in Tuesday s 6:30 p.m. semifinal, most likely against Libbey.