By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Held at the Ian Smith Gymnasium, the Oxford Wildcats boys’ basketball team fell to the Romeo Bulldogs, 41-40, in a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) District No. 5 quarterfinal on March 23.
With the loss the Wildcats rounded out their 2020-21 season at 4-10 (1-5 Oakland Activities Association Blue Division). On the bright side, the Wildcats were competitive in nearly every contest, as four of their losses came by just one or two points.
Sophomore center Tim Kewley led Romeo with 11 points, with seniors Ty Messner and Austin Radtke both chipping in eight. Standout senior guard Mason Mulholland scored a game-high 14 for Oxford, with junior center Bryce Esman adding seven.
The Wildcats took a one-point lead, 20-19, into the halftime break and the game bore a striking resemblance to the February 20 meeting between these two schools at Romeo High School, a game the Bulldogs won, 45-43, on a 3-pointer by junior Logan Rolfs as time expired.
“We didn’t hit our free throws, we were 6-of-20 from the free throw line,” head coach Steve Laidlaw said of the difference in the game. “They didn’t miss many threes; we didn’t give them many wide-open threes. Every three we took was wide-open and if there was one Achilles’ heel that we had this whole year, for as much as we spent time on it, it was hitting free throws and hitting wide-open threes.
“I thought that was the difference, I thought we did a lot of good things the other night. I thought we played really poorly to start the game, got down, 8-0, obviously, we gave up six points the first minute and three seconds, two off live turnovers.
“We had an opportunity, up by one, in the second half to score and we didn’t run the play right, it was there. We were stopping them, but we weren’t getting any shots at the basket because we were turning the ball over. Once we settled down, we were getting shots at the basket and just not hitting them.
“So, that’s a pretty long-winded explanation of what happened, but I really thought that was the difference in the game. I thought our half-court defense was really good, and when they hit a three, twice they were off offensive rebounds. That was our goal, not to give No. 1 (Rolfs) or No. 24 (Messner) any wide-open looks, and we didn’t give them any. The problem is because of our missed free throws, we weren’t able to score like we should’ve.”
Despite the uncertainties this shortened campaign presented, there were some positive takeaways Laidlaw observed and happenings that will benefit the program moving forward.
“I think the one thing that was really positive was the kids really enjoyed playing together, and that was very refreshing to see kids really bond,” he began.
“We were very young, we were expecting eight seniors on our team this year and that didn’t happen, so that gave us some great opportunities for (sophomores) Logan Rozanski and Dylan Stone, and the seniors just took those kids underneath their wing.
“The other positive, outside of the Stoney Creek game and the second Rochester game, those were the only games we were really out of it. Other games, I mean, we lost four games by a combined six points where we either had a chance to win it at the end or sustain our lead at the end.
“I thought, from a program perspective, even though you’re 4-10, to be that competitive in 12 of the 14 games really says a lot about the kids and it’s going to bode well for us next year, we just need to figure out how to win these close games, but I truly think just becoming a better free throw-shooting team and hitting wide-open threes will be the difference next year.”
While Oxford did not feature the eight seniors they were expecting at this point a year ago, the team still had five members of the Class of 2021 on their roster.
Headed by Mulholland, who developed into one of the best guards in the OAA, this group, which also encompasses Tristan Bennett, Trent Brown, Palmer Speck, and Silas VonAllmen, was an integral part of the team’s competitive nature.
Laidlaw shared a bit about what this group has meant to him and the program throughout their four years at the high school.
“They were part of, really, the rejuvenation of the program, that’s how I look at it,” he said.
“Even though none of these five kids were part of that 23-2 team two years ago, they were part of the JV team and they were 19-1 and five seconds away from being undefeated that year. All five of them stayed in the program and we have a very demanding program, we work very hard all season long, including the offseason, and these five kids stuck with it.
“Tristan Bennett and Silas VonAllmen, they didn’t even play middle school basketball, yet Tristan became a starter and Silas was a contributor the entire senior year.
“Getting to Mason (Mulholland), I’ve never seen a kid who wanted to have such a great senior year and did what was necessary in the offseason to make sure he had a great senior year, and he had one, he truly had a great senior year.
“Trent Brown is an awesome kid, he hit big threes for us. I just think Palmer Speck was an outstanding captain for us, always positive, always encouraging his teammates. I couldn’t ask any more of these five seniors.”
Looking ahead to the 2021-22 Wildcats, Laidlaw offered a glimpse of what fans can expect.
“We’ll have six returning players, for sure, maybe even seven,” he said. “(Junior) Alec Brown was an incredible, pleasant surprise for us this year. He averaged six points-per-game, took a lot of the primary ballhandling duties away from Mason, and became one of our better defensive players.
“(Junior) Mitch Viviano and Bryce (Esman) are going to be the two biggest guys we’ve had here at Oxford that I can ever remember, quite frankly. Logan Rozanski was one of the most improved players I’ve ever seen during the course of a season. Dylan Stone, we weren’t expecting to play varsity, he did. He got better and better as the season went on, specifically during practice.
“It’ll be really interesting to see how (juniors) Ben Cruz and Manny Ortiz do next year. Ben Cruz is an incredible teammate, he always makes us better during practice, and next year, he’ll be given an opportunity to get playing time, so it will be interesting to see how he does.
“The key is, we’re going to have great leaders in Alec and Bryce, but the true X-factors are Mitch and Logan because they’re so talented.”
On top of the seven young men Laidlaw mentioned, sophomores Lucas Bottene and Brody Burns, two of the junior varsity team’s better players, were both promoted to the varsity level ahead of the March 16 regular season finale at Birmingham Seaholm and project to work into the rotation next year.
By Teddy Rydquist