West Ottawa expected to be the west side's best hope for a Class A title
Holland - The Holland West Ottawa boys basketball team may have loads of experience, impressive talent and momentum, but there is one element the Panthers don't have in their bid for a state title.
History is not on the Panthers' side.
West Ottawa is arguably the Grand Rapids area's best bet to overcome the west side's less-than-stellar history in the Class A tournament next month. The Panthers clinched a share of their third consecutive O-K Conference Red Division title by defeating Grandville last Friday, then raised their record to 16-2 with Tuesday's 70-47 win over Caledonia.
Heady stuff for sure, but West Ottawa still has to be wary of the area's sketchy history competing in Class A.
While Grand Rapids has traditionally done reasonably well in the other three classifications in March, the area has had limited success in Class A. For instance, after Ottawa Hills won back-to-back titles in 1968-69, the area went 28 years before Ottawa Hills again won Class A in 1997. Since then only Rockford in 2003 has won a state championship. In fact, it's rare that a Grand Rapids team even plays for a title in that class as only those three teams, along with Grand Rapids Christian a year ago and Rockford in 2012, have even been in the finals since Holland in 1937.
Still, West Ottawa coach Steve Windemuller said his team, now 56-9 over the last three seasons, doesn't dwell on history. Windemuller admits it could actually be beneficial for a senior-dominated club not to get caught up the realization that time was running out. He said it's not unusual for today's athlete to get caught up in the moment as compared to paying attention to the long road.
"Maybe I'd like them to think about that," he said. "But I've been coaching 30-plus years and kids live for the moment, live for the day. It's about this day at school or being with their friends or anything else. You just have to go out and prepare for that right. Winning a title isn't something they dwell on."
On the other hand, Windemuller contends if a team is thinking only of today, there could be less pressure than if players were fretting about what lies down the road.
"You approach each game as its own entity," he said. "You just go out, play the game, and do your best."
It's a philosophy which has worked well for an outstanding senior class. There are nine seniors on the roster, five of whom played varsity as sophomores when the team went 17-5. Last season West Ottawa was 23-2, with both losses coming against Grand Rapids Christian. West Ottawa had a 15-game winning streak two seasons ago and, at one point, owned a 14-game winning streak this season.
It's not only an experienced group but also athletic. Of the 14 players on the roster, 12 play at least one other sport. Xavier Wade and Liam Cavanaugh, for instance, will play football at Ferris State and Davenport, respectively. Tyler Bosma will play baseball at Miami of Ohio.
Experience and athleticism aside, Windemuller said there are other factors which leave the team in the conversation for winning a state title. He said the team is loose, largely because much of the club began playing together in the fifth grade.
"It's an interesting dynamic," he said of the players. "It's a pocket of guys who've been together a long time and who've played a lot of sports together.
"I think that's made them hungry. They've enjoyed success in the past and their focus is just playing the best they can and let that go where it takes them. They have a real desire to go farther than they went last year."
Because classmates, parents and those in the community continually inquire about a long tournament run, the players say it's impossible to escape a certain level of expectation and, thus, pressure. According to three-year senior letterman Nick Wehrmeyer, they take that in stride.
"Obviously it's on our mind," said Wehmeyer, who is considering playing golf in college. "But we just take it day to day. When people bring up the past, we try to stay in the moment. Almost every day we get asked if we can do this or that. We get that a lot so there is pressure."
Bosma, a 6-6 forward, said one of the often-overlooked strengths of the team is that the players genuinely love playing together. There is no jealousy over running up statistics or who is the best player.
"The biggest thing with us is chemistry," he said. "We don't have any stars or someone who is going to score 30 points. We spread around the scoring and that's fine with us. We’ve got nine seniors and some guys who've played travel ball since the third grade. It's easy to know the other guy's strengths and weaknesses and we play off that."
Windemuller said while defending state champion Clarkston is the team to beat, there are others who will thrust themselves into the title picture. He mentioned Ann Arbor Skyline and Canton to name two. On a neutral court, West Ottawa defeated state-ranked Flint Carman-Ainsworth earlier this season, a win that Windemuller said proved one thing to the team.
"It proved we can play at a high level against anyone," he said. "There is probably Clarkston and then everyone else, but you never know."