WEST CHESTER TWP. — After a rough couple of years, the Lakota West High School boys basketball team needed a big win early this season to regain some confidence.
It came last Friday in Jim Leon’s debut as coach.
The Firebirds bounced back from a 27-13 halftime deficit to beat St. Xavier 56-52 in their season opener at home. Last year amid a 13-game losing streak, West fell 62-47 to the Bombers, who went on to win 17 games as the Firebirds finished 4-19.
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“It’s definitely a great positive for us,” senior forward Matt Oehler said. “We struggled last year, and coming in and seeing the potential we have right away, it’s exciting. It’s a good springboard for us and builds confidence. We had a couple young guys step up, and we’re excited to see how we come together moving forward.”
Now West looks to build on that finish as it hosts Greater Miami Conference foe Oak Hills on Friday, but Leon is hoping for a full four-quarter performance like the second half it put together in the opener.
The turnaround in Friday’s game came with the reminder at halftime to settle down and make adjustments on defense in the second half.
“The first half we were really nervous, you could just tell,” Leon said. “My first game as their coach and the crowd, we were just tight. We played hard and just couldn’t make shots, so we were getting frustrated. St. X came to play, they did a nice job. At halftime, we just tried to get them to calm down and be confident and play hard.
“We’ve got some young talent mixed with seniors, so it just takes time to get used to playing together. That’s where the confidence builds. The second half our defense really got after it. We rebounded, guarded tough, and when you do that and you’re working hard, all the sudden shots start to fall. We had some people hit some big shots. It was quite a victory. It turned out to be a fun night. It was great.”
West outscored the Bombers 43-25 in the second half and was led by Oehler’s 17 points and Carter Combs’ 14 points. Oehler was 4-for-5 from 3-point range, and sophomores Kelvin Turner and Brady Weber came off the bench and added three big treys in the fourth quarter.
Weber finished with 10 points, including his two 3-pointers, and led the Firebirds with six rebounds.
“Matt doesn’t shoot the ball enough, but we’ve been telling him, ‘If you get the ball and have a look, take the shot,’” Leon said. “He really hit some big shots for us, and then Brady Weber hit two 3s that were huge. He’s only about 6-4 and he’s kind of our big guy, but he stepped out and hit two 3-pointers, and Kelvin Turner had one too. So, it was a combination of a senior and two sophomores hitting big shots at the end.”
Leon said that win created some expectations for the program, but the Firebirds just need to take things one game at a time.
“The last few years they’ve been starved for a winner, so I’m happy to provide that, but it’s a long season and every team in the GMC is so good,” Leon said. “We had St. X, and then we’ve got La Salle and Elder coming up, so every game is a challenge.
“We all get along so well, guys are pulling for each other and the coaches are enjoying it. I just hope people are patient. But I think you’ll see a team that comes out and plays hard and has the competitive drive to win every game — but I’m not making any other promises.”
The Firebirds have had a good week of practice leading into Game 2 against Oak Hills, which is playing its opener and coming off an 18-7 season.
Highlanders coach Mike Price is 378-232 in 26 seasons as head coach, and Leon expects a tough game.
“Our confidence is now up,” Leon said. “We’ve had a good week of practice, but (Friday) we’ve got Oak Hills, a league rival that is really good. If we play like we did the first half, we’re going to be in trouble.
“Mike Price is a legend. I grew up on the West Side and attended Elder and he’s an Oak Hills guy, so I’ve known him many years. When I was at Woodward I coached against him, so there’s a little bit of a history there and I’ve always respected him. They’re going to play great defense, they don’t turn the ball over. It’s their opener, so they’ve had an extra week of practice and got to see us, but we’re at home so we’ll have the crowd behind us and hopefully we can put together four good quarters.”