WEST CHESTER TWP. — Jim Leon had a simple goal when he took over the Lakota West High School boys basketball program in May: Bring back the fun.
The Firebirds finished dead last in the Greater Miami Conference last year with a 4-19 overall record for their second straight losing season, and Leon could sense frustration around the program when he stepped in to replace Matt Rooks.
A turnaround won’t be immediate, Leon said, but as West prepares to tip off the season Friday at home against St. Xavier, he is sure the Firebirds will surprise at least a team or two.
BOYS BASKETBALL SEASON PREVIEWS
“I don’t think the kids had a whole lot of fun the last couple years, and if you’re not having fun there’s frustration on the coaching and playing side, and that’s just not a good situation,” said Leon, who spent the past three years at Division III Mariemont, but has a 452-276 career coaching record including high school boys and girls basketball and Amateur Athletic Union teams.
“They were dressing 16 or 17 guys a game. We’re only going to dress 13. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, so the first thing I want is for them to have fun. They like our style of play, and I think they are excited to show what they can do. My goal is to get back to having fun and earn the respect of the other teams in the GMC because last year — and really the year before too — was difficult. I think the kids were hurt and embarrassed and they want to show they can play, and we’re going to have fun doing it.”
West graduated several seniors, and Leon did a little house cleaning when he arrived. He ended up with six seniors, three juniors and four sophomores on varsity and kept five freshmen on junior varsity.
Leading the group will be senior Matt DeSalvo, a 6-foot-2 guard who transferred from Lakota East last year but sat out, as well as three seniors who got minutes last year — guards Charlie Massa (6-0) and Bradley Groth (5-10) and forward Matt Oehler (6-3). DeSalvo broke his wrist and was expected to get his cast off Monday, and Leon is hopeful he can play Friday.
Others expected to contribute are junior guard Carter Combs (6-1), sophomore guard Kelvin Turner, who moved from Summit Country Day, senior forward Emmanuel Kage (6-1), a newcomer who improved a lot over the summer, and senior forward Israel Tshabola (6-8), who moves up from junior varsity.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in the younger grades and our six seniors are quality players, so we’re hoping to have a bounce-back year with this group,” Leon said. “We will probably play eight or nine guys consistently. They rotated in and out a lot last year, but we’ll probably allow them a little more time on the court to develop consistency.”
Depth will be important with the way Leon wants to play, pushing the tempo on offense and applying pressure in both a half-court and full-court defense, which his teams have been known for during his 25 years as a coach.
Tshabola is really the only player with a lot of height, and Leon said the strength of the team lies in its speed and quickness, so his style suits the Firebirds well.
“We’ll push the ball up the floor, attack the basket, shoot the 3 and apply pressure on defense,” Leon said. “We’ll probably turn it over quite a bit in the beginning, but hopefully that will improve. We’ve got some good athletes that can defend and shoot, so I think it’s a good fit and like I said, the kids like it.”
Despite the struggles the past two years, Leon is confident West can turn things around as quickly as this season even with a tough schedule in and out of conference.
“We have work to do coming off a 4-19 season and it’s going to be a transition kind of year, but I feel this group is going to make a good effort,” Leon said. “We’re going to be really competitive and we’re going to catch someone really good one night. We’re building this program back up. If the kids keep working hard, we feel we can beat anybody.
“We just have to build on what we’ve got and do what we’ve got to do. These guys are really hungry to win. As a coach, you realize the schedule is tough, but you take it one game at a time and hope you get better.”
Leon wants to win just as badly as the players. This is likely the last place he will coach, and he hopes to make it a good experience for everyone.
“I want to restore West back to prominence,” Leon said. “That would be a great way to finish up my career.”
Lakota West Firebirds
Coach: Jim Leon (first season)
2017-18 Record: 4-19 overall, 2-14 GMC (10th place)
OHSAA Classification: Division I
Schedule: Nov. 30 — St. Xavier, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 7 — Oak Hills, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 11 — Middletown, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 14 — at Lakota East, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 18 — at La Salle, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 21 — Sycamore, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 22 — Fairborn, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 28 — at Elder, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 4 — at Hamilton, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 8 — at Fairfield, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 11 — Mason, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 12 — at Springboro, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 15 — at Sycamore, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 18 — at Princeton, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 25 — Colerain, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 26 — Turpin, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 29 — at Oak Hills, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 1 — at Middletown, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 5 — Fairfield, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 — Lakota East, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 12 — at Mason, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 15 — Hamilton, 7:30 p.m.