Five weeks ago, after a 61-47 loss to the Bath Wildcats, Wapakoneta Redskins varsity boys basketball coach Matt Bradley challenged his team to ramp up its defensive effort.
Since that time, a span of seven games, the Redskins have given up no more than 55 points in any game.
They went 2-5 over that stretch, one of the toughest on the schedule with quality opponents such as Defiance, Ottawa-Glandorf and Liberty-Benton.
And it won’t get any easier Friday when veteran coach Dave Froelich brings his Van Wert Cougars to town.
The Cougars are 11-4 overall and 4-2 in the Western Buckeye League. Wapak is 5-10 and 2-4.
“I really think that since the Bath game at the beginning of January, I really do feel like we’ve improved,” Bradley said. “I think sometimes the guys think I’m nitpicking at them. I think coaches are never fully satisfied. But our defensive effort the last six or seven games has been much improved from the beginning of the season.
“But we’ve got to continue to defend. I think that’s going to be the difference between us being successful Friday night and from here on out is to continue to defend at a high level.”
A year ago, a 74-33 loss to Van Wert became the turning point for Wapak as it closed out the season with a furious rally, including a sectional tournament win over the rival St. Marys Roughriders.
Corey Clifton led that Cougars squad to a Division II district championship. He has since graduated, but Van Wert returns a solid nucleus.
“A program like Van Wert, it’s usually going to be more reloading than rebuilding,” Bradley said. “Coach Froelich does a phenomenal job with that whole program. It seems like every year they’ve got a really, really strong JV team. Those guys are anxious to get their chance to play varsity and they make the most of it.
Key returners include Jacob Myers (6-foot, senior) and point guard Joey Hurless (6-0, junior).
“Jacob Myers, I think, is the best pure scorer in the WBL,” Bradley said. “He’s averaging just under 20 points a game. He can score in a variety of ways. They do a great job of getting him looks on different spots on the floor. We’ve got to be aware of where he is at all times.
“We’ve got to get back in transition. They do a really good job of, especially off of defensive rebounds, of looking to push.”
Bradley said Van Wert is very similar offensively to Liberty-Benton, which beat Wapak 53-33 last Saturday.
“[Hurless] does a really good job of penetrating and attacking and finding open guys,” Bradley said. “Knowing where Myers is and getting back in transition are probably the two biggest keys for us.”
Despite the loss to Liberty-Benton, Bradley saw positives from the past weekend, especially on the offensive end in the 60-40 win over St. Marys. The Redskins had 22 made field goals in that game and recorded 19 assists, 10 of those coming from senior guard Andy Faller.
“I think the fact that we played really unselfishly, that we were looking for open guys, passing up good shots for better ones — 19 out of 22 is phenomenal,” Bradley said.
“Saturday, we were really pretty good defensively in a lot of cases. The times that we broke down or lost a shooter, Liberty-Benton made it. When the opponent takes advantage of open shots, that puts you behind the 8-ball. ... We’ve just got to maybe clean up some of those things. We’re working on that this week.”