WOODVILLE — It starts with Mitchell Miller’s ability to score from anywhere on the court, flowing downstream to Drew Burner’s rebounding prowess, and head coach Aaron Clouse’s proclivity for pulling the right lever.
At the midway point of the high school boys basketball season, Woodmore is 9-2 overall and 4-2 in the Northern Buckeye Conference. That’s not bad for a program that went the way of Rip Van Winkle for a dozen years, essentially sleeping its way through the past decade.
“If we have a successful season this year, which I’m fully confident we can,” Miller said, “it will change how people look at Woodmore.”
The Wildcats’ last winning season came in 2004-05, when they finished 21-3, won the Suburban Lakes League, and had a possible Final Four berth derailed in a regional semifinal after All-Ohio guard Tyler Rosenberger suffered an ankle injury. Woodmore was dormant the next 12 years, recording a .500 record just once.
The first inkling of swift change came during the second half of last season. Woodmore won six of its last 13 games, and Miller, who made 43 3-pointers on the season, averaged 15.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.4 steals in earning All-NBC honors.
“The second half of the year, we flipped a switch,” said Clouse, 38, who’s in his fourth season as head coach. “We found a rhythm, we found an identity. We settled into a half-court man-to-man as opposed to doing a lot of different things defensively. Once we simplified things for the kids, they really picked it up. On offense, we focused on quality looks every time down the court.
“Our seniors last year did a great job building a foundation. It carried us into a strong second half, which carried into our summer, which we picked up at the start of the season. So a lot of credit goes to those guys.”
Give an assist to Clouse’s counterparts in the NBC. Before the season, Woodmore was predicted to finish DFL — dead freaking last — in the conference.
“There’s motivation to grind every day in practice and improve every day to prove them wrong,” said Burner, a 6-foot-2 junior forward.
A burning impulse to author a new history at Woodmore has guided the Wildcats. Miller is averaging an NBC-best 21.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.8 steals per game. (Miller’s point output is fifth-most in The Blade’s coverage area.) His latest coup came Friday, when he hit a game-winning 3 to defeat defending co-conference champion Eastwood 46-44.
Burner, a self-described scrapper, is the team’s second-leading scorer (13.3) and its best rebounder (5.8). Woodmore’s average margin of victory is 12.4 points, with five wins coming by double digits.
“We had a game earlier this season against Port Clinton, where we gave up a lead and then it was back-and-forth. And we just found a way to win,” Clouse said. “I don’t want to say we wouldn't have won in years past, because you don’t know, but they showed a grit and will to win that we typically didn’t have. Once we started well, we’ve built on that.”
The Wildcats start two seniors and three juniors, and their eight-man rotation includes freshman Aaron Sandrock, the team’s fourth-leading scorer who also averages 2.8 rebounds and more than one steal per game.
The team’s spark comes from Mitchell, Woodmore’s leader who carries a healthy dose of swagger. The 6-foot-1 senior guard helped jumpstart the year with a 30-point performance in a win against Oak Harbor. He validated it with 28 points in the win against Port Clinton and 17 points in a blowout of Gibsonburg as Woodmore began the season 3-0 for the first time since 1998-99.
With 168 more points, he will become the sixth member of Woodmore’s 1,000-career point club. The magic number could be eclipsed behind the 3-point lane, on a drive to the basket, or at the free-throw line. Miller is lethal from each area.
“I know my ability to be able to score,” said Miller, who qualified for the state golf tournament in October. “Ever since the first game when I dropped 30, I’ve been super confident stepping on the court every night.”
It lowers Clouse’s stress level, simplifying things for an offensive tour de force. Practice isn’t filled with an hour of running a variety of offensive sets. Instead, the Wildcats use a basic open offense, where players are taught to read and react. Woodmore stresses defenses by opening gaps and driving lanes, which forces opponents to help.
Clouse espouses the motto “Drive to set up somebody else,” a creed embraced by his players.
“Mitchell and Drew are great examples of that,” Clouse said. “They really play well off each other. Drew benefits off Mitchell’s attacks, and Drew has done a really good job at being a slasher. He’s been great at attacking the basket.
“We’ve made great strides defensively, but our offense puts a lot of pressure on opponents. Having a playmaker like [Mitchell] in the middle makes it go. If we didn’t have that playmaker, we might have to trust in some other things. It really opens a lot of things up for his teammates.
“What stands out about Mitchell is he’s gotten better every year. He didn’t come to us as a freshman where we started him, and he took a high volume of shots. He played an entire year of JV his freshman year. He’s changed his body so much. He spent a lot of time in the weight room, thinned himself up. He’s gotten a lot quicker and added to his game each year.”
Miller is a matchup nightmare. Opponents routinely use double teams, face guarding, and box-and-one defenses to try to limit his production and impact on offense.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Last year, I really wasn't. But I knew it was coming this year.”
The NBC can’t say the same. They didn’t foresee a clowder of Wildcats — led by Miller, Burner, Sandrock, and Hayden Heidebrink — pawing at the top of the standings.
“We’re overlooked in every sport at Woodmore,” Burner said, “and we’re trying to change the way people think of us and look at us.”
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