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Dominant Stockaders always striving for more

Old Fort goes for perfect league season tonight; hopes for deep tournament run

PHOTO BY MATT NYE Old Fort coach Eric Hoover (left) instructs players (from left) Jordan Smith, Gregory Steyer and Carson Steyer during practice Wednesday at Old Fort.

OLD FORT — Before this season even started, it wasn’t a secret Old Fort was loaded.

Peppered with talent, depth, height, experience, quickness and any other adjective to describe a championship-level basketball team.

Fast forward to now, the Stockaders (20-1, 15-0 Sandusky Bay Conference River Division) just won their fourth straight league championship, have Lakota in their way for a perfect league season and are the top seed in their district for postseason play, beginning next week.

The potential was there for a season like this, but even some of the players weren’t quite expecting it.

“I didn’t doubt us. I didn’t realize it until we were actually in it,” senior forward Carson Steyer said. “You always want to go that perfect season, it’s there for us and we keep looking for things like that. Bringing people back, five seniors and a lot of other good players, bringing back a lot of talent helps. It’s amazing to see the progress and all of the hard work we put in day in and day out. I love the guys and I’d do anything for them.”

Ninth-year coach Eric Hoover said he was optimistic about the season with all of the talent and experience back, but considering injuries, lulls during a long grind of a season with 16 league games, he wasn’t quite sure what his team would produce.

“I was optimistic. I thought we’d be pretty good. We’ve improved in a lot of different ways,” Hoover said. “We had a good summer. We still were moving in some younger guys into the lineup even when we had some guys back … you just never know when the season comes that the guys will respond to the level of competition, do they do what we ask them to in practice, so you are always cautiously optimistic.

“I knew the league would be very good. There are some stretches … tough stretches of games where winning two of three, we are in good shape. We are able to be consistent and win all three. We have goals every game. Some games we do a lot better at defensive goals or offensive, but we’ve been able to do enough to get victories.”

One of the many reasons the Stockaders have been able to keep winning this season is a plethora of depth.

Hoover has his starting five, but after that at least three to five guys coming off the bench would be starting for other teams. That’s the luxury Hoover and his staff have to work with and they’ve built a championship team because of it.

“I feel like everyone that comes off the bench our six, seven or eighth man would definitely start on a lot of the teams we have played,” Steyer said. “They are the ones that make everyone else better every single day because if we are practicing against that level of player, it’s like we are practicing against another varsity team. The depth is probably as strong as its ever been. It’s incredible for us to have that because it always makes the starting five that much better.”

Junior guard Zach Dewese added: “If one player is hurt or can’t play, you’re not worried about it because one is just as good as another. It’s good in practice too. We fight each other out and it’s always beneficial because we are always so close to each other. It makes it fun.”

One guy coming off the bench is senior Jordan Smith.

Smith, a quick versatile guard, is averaging eight points and two assists per game.

“We knew we had a lot of guys coming back and a deep bench,” he said. “Me and Garrett (Havens) coming off the bench to give us a boost. We got some good guards and in the post they can do everything they need to do to get the job done. We all fight for positions and we all make each other better every practice. As the season went on, we needed those games to win, we just have pushed each other even harder.

“Try and get everything done that we need to get done,” Smith said about coming off the bench. “If we are lacking on defense, I try to go in and get some stops. Offense, I try to get my teammates the ball to get things going for us.”

Other guys coming off the bench include Havens (4.2 ppg), Myles Miller (4.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Mason Salas (2.1 ppg) and Ryan Miller (2.1 ppg).

Any one of the “bench” players could score in double figures, but with so much talent on the floor, they have all bought in to the team’s success.

“It’s a long season, people get hurt. We played a game without Carson, we played a game without Dewese, we played a couple of games without Jordan and we found ways to win those games,” Hoover said. “Other teams, if you lose your leading scorer, you’re in big trouble. We just have other guys we can go to and get it done. The depth is a big part of that.

“I’ve said it all year and I mean it, I can put anyone in the game and I don’t miss anything with the next guy coming in. I know what to expect from them. I’m not subbing in JV players,” he said. “I have 11 varsity players over there and not everybody has that luxury. We have a good senior through sophomore group out there. They love playing and it’s really paying off right now.”

The depth is one thing, but the height Hoover has on his roster is unique for the Stockaders.

The benefits are easy to see.

Old Fort has had a lot of great players and teams over Hoover’s nine years, but having eight players at six foot or taller, is something Hoover hasn’t had. That includes a true “big man” in sophomore Colin Nutter, who stands at 6-6.

Nutter is averaging 11.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks (leads SBC River) per contest. Steyer, who is 6-3, puts in 16.5 points (third in SBC River) and 4.9 rebounds per game. Havens and Miller are both listed at 6-2 and even guards Dewese (11.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Gregory Steyer (6.7 ppg) are over six foot.

“Our size has definitely helped. Our guys are able to protect the basket, we were able to contest everything inside and we have a good mix of pressure on the perimeter and big guys down low to make things tough,” Hoover said. “We had Eric Bell a few years ago and he was 6-4. You don’t realize how important it was for size protecting the basket.

“You could see the opponent shooting percentage was much lower that year and I think that was a big part of it. We have a lot of big guys, not just Colin. Our guards are usually a lot bigger than the guys they are guarding and we have a lot of size and length at every position.”

The mixture of height and quickness and pressure on the perimeter has led to the least amount of points given up in the league (44.0 ppg). Old Fort scores 68.6 points per game, so it has been dominant on both ends of the court this season.

“We are versatile enough to win a game in a variety of ways. Maybe in the past we struggled a little bit in the halfcourt offense. I don’t feel like that’s a weakness, no,” Hoover said. “We have different ways we can score in the halfcourt. We have a lot of different guys we can go to, we can find a mismatch and maybe in the past we relied on turning people over with the defensive pressure and when we couldn’t turn them over, we struggled to score.

“We have multiple ways to score this year. We’ve done a better job defensively, not allowing easy baskets, partially spent more time on it and we set higher expectations for them defensively.”

Old Fort has so many options a talented scorer like Dewese is one of three players averaging in double figures. He admitted playing with so much talent, he doesn’t have to great or “the guy” every night, which is crucial for a long season.

“You got other guys to fill the roles and you just sit back and take what the other team gives you,” he said. “Be a team player. I just take what’s given to me and try to capitalize on that.”

That mentality, which is cemented throughout the whole team, is another reason the Stockaders are rolling.

“Another thing about our depth is in practice,” Hoover said. “I feel like we can get more out of practice than most teams can. We have a lot of competition. When guys 6-12 are varsity-level players, you are getting to see that every day in practice.

“We’re able to improve more because we are able to have that every day. They play hard 6-12, out there battling, they know their minutes will be less during games, but I think they’ve realized how important their roles are with making us better and being the best we can be. No doubt that’s a big key to our success. That gets missed by a lot of people.”

The senior class, which includes five players, have won four straight league titles and have taken ownership of the team.

“They’ve been winners their whole lives. They won the league in seventh and eighth grade too,” Hoover said. “I think they were not going to to be denied of it this year. I don’t know if they looked at it like that at all, but I was fully aware of it and I wanted it for them.

“They’ve all had outstanding careers and are great kids. They all have different roles on the team and they’ve welcomed younger players in to get better and win and they all have a singular goal. They’ve been great for this program and regardless of what happens the rest of the way, they are going to be able to look back and be proud of what they did here.”

There is a little bit left of their careers, though.

Finishing off a perfect league season is one thing, but to make a deep tournament run would be the cherry on top.

“We’re definitely excited for the tournament going in as the No. 1 seed,” Smith said. “This season really met our expectations and we still have some goals. We want to get past districts this season because last year we didn’t accomplish that. We just want to keep achieving our goals.”

Hoover added: “We still have goals for the regular season. We haven’t even looked at the postseason. We said a while back we aren’t looking at rankings or standings throughout the year, we don’t want to compare scores, we have things to accomplish every night and if we do enough of them we are going to win the game. That’s how we’ve approached things all year and we will continue to do that.”

As for Hoover, he’s had some incredible players and teams throughout his tenure, but his coaching style has changed just a little, he admitted.

Well, from his players’ perspectives, that’s a plus.

“Hoover’s interesting … he’s never satisfied,” Dewese said. “He’s always pushing us no matter what. If there is one little thing that is off, he’ll catch it and he’ll keep pushing us to get as close as possible to perfection.”

“I probably have changed,” Hoover said with a smile. “Cole Davidson, my JV coach, was here when I got here, he probably knows some things that have changed that I don’t even recognize. He and everyone would say it was harder back when they played. Part of it was when you first get somewhere, you are trying to establish a culture that maybe wasn’t where it needed to be or where I thought it should be. It takes some years for it to evolve to where I want things to be, whether in the classroom, out in public, on the floor, in practice or games … you expect certain ways to act, not to act and once you get that established and they know what your expectations are, they fall in line.

“Maybe I’ve calmed down a bit. I still like to get up and down the sidelines and pace the sidelines and I’ll get on them. They know they have things to get done and if they don’t do something right, I’m gonna call them out on it. I’ll call anyone out whether if it’s No. 1-12 and treating everyone right that way, they all know what is expected. If they don’t live up to their expectations and I don’t get on them, they act surprised. But we also are real positive with them because we know what they are capable of doing and we want to get the best out of them. They might not understand that at the time, but they’ll look back on it and appreciate that if they don’t already.”

So far this season, Hoover and his staff have pushed all the right buttons.

There are a few more buttons to press this year, but if it’s anything like the regular season, they will probably be the right ones.

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