|Tyler White of Lima Senior (Photo by OHSH).|
Perhaps you haven't heard of the Ohio Hoopsters, but don't worry, there is no need to apologize. The program is not even two months old in terms of performing, but is already starting to collect a groupie-like following.
How can a travel team which has only played 27 games in its history draw so much attention? The Hoopsters are a mid-majors, more specifically Mid-American Conference, dream. However, this isn't the reason it has drawn so many onlookers in most of its games. The team is a mixture of castoffs, blue collar-type players, and shooters combined with some colorful personalities on its bench.
Long-time AAU guy Tony Lavender heads the program and coaches the 17U squad when he isn't running a tournament or attending church. Terry Holiman is Lavender's top assistant and coaches the team when "Lav" is unable to attend. Then, there is assistant coach "Bob," who may be the most colorful character on the AAU scene.
Though, make no mistake, this team can play and when it's game time they are ferocious and relentless. The underdog mentality approach has made the Hoopsters a fan favorite.
So, how does Lavender rate the start of his new program?
"I would have to say in one word, excellent," mentioned Lavender. "I believe we are 20-7 on the year. The kids are really bonding and playing together as a team. We want to have a mentality of sharing the basketball and the kids are really buying into the team mentality. Along with sharing the ball, we have been a team that has taken care of the basketball really well."
The Ohio Hoopsters started the year with a runner-up finish at the Buckeye Prep Invitational, but it was easy to tell something was a little off. This led the Hoopsters to make a couple roster changes heading into the All-Ohio Nike Cup and the team has remained the same since. The Hoopsters lost to the West Virginia Wildcats in the semis of that tournament.
The turning point was a week later at the Pittsburgh Jamfest and one game in particular. The Hoopsters were playing the nationally-ranked Playaz Club out of New Jersey and had the ultra-talented squad beat for the majority of the second half before losing by just a single point. The court was filled with onlookers marking the first time people were wondering just who this mystery team was.
Later in the evening Thurgood Marshall forward Joe Ballard brought more attention to the team by performing a between-the-legs dunk and a 360 jam in consecutive possessions. The fans surrounding the court were in shock.
The next weekend the Ohio Hoopsters finished 1-1 in pool play at the prestigious King James Shooting Stars Classic, which put them in a three-way tie. Points allowed cost them a chance to play in the Gold Bracket and forced the Hoopsters to the Bronze. Lavender's team lost a one-point game to the SC Raptors in pool play, but rolled to the Bronze title.
The team was unable to compete in the Bill Hensley Run-n-Slam in Fort Wayne, Indiana due to the 64 teams already being chosen, but the Hoopsters more than made up for it this past weekend in Bloomington (IN) by finishing runner-up at the Adidas May Classic. The Hoopsters fell to a talented Wisconsin Playground team led by North Carolina verbal- JP Tokoto in the championship game.
So who are these kids?
Guards Andre Yates (Dayton Dunbar), Joe Thomasson (Thurgood Marshall), and Tyler White (Lima Senior) usually start in the backcourt along with Vanlue teammates Zach Garber (2013) and Jonathon Kloepfer up front.
Yates recently transferred to Dayton Dunbar from Trotwood-Madison.
"Andre (Yates) has been fantastic," Lavender noted. "When he gets it rolling he is really hard to stop. He tends to get off to slow starts, but is a really strong and solid point guard. He is a lefty which is a real advantage because it makes it really awkward for the opponent."
Thomasson helped lead Thurgood Marshall to the Division 2 state championship game.
"Joe (Thomasson) can really shoot the ball and is so long," stated the Hoopsters' boss. "We have been talking to Joe about playing with energy all the time. When he plays with energy he can play with anyone."
White didn't draw a lot of publicity during the high school season, but this kid is one of the best in the state at what he does.
"I love Tyler White," Lavender expressed. "He is another kid that when he plays with energy is really hard to stop. He is our poor man's Ray Allen. We run him side-to-side off screens and he can flat out score the rock."
Garber is one of the better small school athletes in Ohio, but don't be fooled by the small school title this kid has Division 1 potential.
"He is just so fundamentally sound," Lavender said. "He has been phenomenal for us. He is an excellent defender and always in the right position. He has been great considering he is a 2013 kid."
Kloepfer really symbolizes what the Hoopsters are all about.
"Jon (Kloepfer) is just a solid kid," the Hoopsters' head man noted. "He is a blue-collar kid who does all the dirty work."
The bench consists of Adam McCall (Walnut Ridge), Joe Ballard (Thurgood Marshall), Stephen O'Daniel (Westerville South), Christian Graves (Westerville Central), Allasane Kah (Walnut Ridge), and Gary Akbar (Dayton Dunbar).
Graves, who is nearing 6-4, is a kid who Lavender has really been impressed with.
"He hit 13 threes in two days at the Adidas May Classic," Lavender relayed. "He can flat out shoot the rock and he has started to put the ball on the floor a little more."
McCall is still trying to fully recover from an injury suffered at the end of the high school season, so we haven't seen the real Adam McCall yet. Though, he has been extremely effective coming off the bench running the point. McCall is an excellent on-the-ball defender.
Ballard is full of "wow" plays with his ridiculous leaping ability and Akbar recently just rejoined the club.
O'Daniel is another knock down shooter who Lavender refers to as his "microwave" in reference to former Detroit Pistons' sixth man Vinnie Johnson.
Kah is another kid improving leaps and bounds who oozes with potential. The 6-foot-8 Walnut Ridge big man has really been playing well. Kah has been rebounding the ball, protecting the rim, and knocking down 10-15 foot jumpers.
Mid-majors are all over this team along with some lower level Division 1 schools and D2s.
The Ohio Hoopsters will be in Columbus this weekend for the All-Ohio Nike Super 16 Showcase.
The Hoopsters have teams in other age brackets, but at this point, the 17U team is the only one which has been able to compete on the national level.