PREVIEW: Big squad takes court for boys basketball

By Erik Andrews - For the News-Tribune

Coach Kurt Russell had a relaxed look as he and his assistants gathered the troops for preseason workouts.

More than 30 young men — a large group for Phoenix basketball — are out this year to hone their skills under Russell’s guidance, his 11th campaign at the helm.

Missing from the team roster is the Class of 2017 “Gang of Seven” that led the squad to a 19-6 (13-3 PAC) record and on two recent playoff runs, reaching the state’s Division III Sweet 16 in 2016 and returning to the district finals last spring.

While that leadership and maturity will be sorely missed going into this year, Russell anticipates that returning senior starters Justin Smith and Devan Yarber will step into those big shoes.

The Liberty Ford Tip-Off Classic Tournament opens the season this weekend in Vermilion. “We’ll get an early read on where we stand against good competition when we face Hawken and Vermilion (or Brookside),” Russell said. “These are bigger schools with typically strong programs — a good opportunity for our inexperienced team to get a feel for the speed and demands of varsity play.”

Key conference games appear early in the season as Oberlin faces Columbia and Wellington in week two. However the showdowns many anticipate — games against two-time Patriot Athletic Conference-Stripes champion Clearview — don’t occur until early in 2018.

In each of the past two years, the Clippers and the Phoenix have squared off with the Stripes title on the line. In each instance, the Clippers emerged victorious. “If we get to that situation again this year, we look forward to flipping the result on them,” said Russell.

Returning to the sidelines as assistants are Oberlin alumni Jordan Beard and David Watson. Both have multiple years of experience under their belts and with this program.

Russell is pleased to have both back. “As always, they will be valuable assets to our team. They know the boys, how to motivate and coach them. This is a team effort to raise up the young men in our program and I couldn’t ask for better help than the coaching team with have this year.”

With such strong numbers, Oberlin will again field varsity, junior varsity (coach Morgan Jones), and freshmen (coach Bill Roniger) teams to compete with their PAC brethren throughout the winter.

By Erik Andrews

For the News-Tribune