By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Entering the fourth season of his second stint as the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Oxford High School, Steve Laidlaw has taken the Wildcats’ program to heights it has never been before.
“We set a school-record for wins,” Laidlaw said of his 2018-19 team. “Won our first district title in 26 years, only our second league championship since 1981, first time Oxford has played in a regional final since 1948. So, it was a historical year on many levels.”
Filled with seniors last season, the Wildcats’ roster will look much different this go-around.
“We lost seven seniors from the playing rotation,” Laidlaw explained. “Including three starters – Michael Raisch, Connor Nicholson and Logan Coughlin – that were incredible captains.
“We have a lot to replace. Experience, talent and leadership, that’s what all seven of those kids provided us.”
Despite this high level of turnover, Laidlaw does have a couple of key assets returning.
“The good news is, we have both the Townsend boys back,” he said. “(Senior) Trey Townsend is the first player in the modern era of Oxford basketball to get his college paid for, and I’m even including Division-II, as far as I’m aware.
“Zach Townsend is a junior and he’s been with us for two years. Having that experience back in the starting lineup will be huge.”
One of Oakland County’s most exciting players, the elder Townsend averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game as a junior. Standing 6-foot-6, he is big enough to score around the rim, but versatile and quick enough to put the basketball on the floor and take his defender off the dribble.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Trey has committed to play for Greg Kampe and the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies in the Horizon League.
While the Townsend brothers will be driving forces for the Wildcats, other players will have to step up, as well.
“(Senior forward) Ethan Robinson moved to Oxford prior to his junior year and he’s been voted co-captain with Trey,” Laidlaw shared. “We’re looking for him to provide significant leadership, he’s a great kid.
“We’re going to have to count on a number of underclassmen, too. (Junior) Mason Mulholland will be one of our starting guards and (junior) Pedro Bottene will be another key back court contributor.”
A two-sport athlete, Bottene was fourth on the Wildcats’ soccer team with five goals this fall.
“(Junior) Trent Brown – coach Dave Brown’s son – will be one of our important forwards, along with (junior) Tristan Bennett,” Laidlaw continued.
No stranger to being teammates with Bottene, Bennett is a two-time All-Oakland Activities Association selection in soccer as a netminder.
“We also have a 6-foot-6 sophomore in Bryce Esman, whom we’re trying to continue to groom and improve. Juniors Josh Jackson and Palmer Speck also have opportunities to see the floor for extended periods,” the coach concluded of his roster.
Posting a 19-1 regular season record on their way to an OAA Blue league title last season, the Wildcats are making the jump up to the OAA White this year. In addition to a step up in competition, Oxford will get to play some opponents the program has never battled.
“I think the White is going to be an incredibly competitive division,” Laidlaw told this reporter. “Oxford has never played Southfield before in basketball. We haven’t played Farmington in years and they have a player (junior point guard Jaden Akins) who already has an offer from Michigan State.
“The Troy Colts will also be very good. They also have a player (junior point guard Brody Parker) who is committed to Oakland. It’s going to be tough, but we’re looking forward to the challenge. We have a phrase, ‘We’re in it to win it.’”
Perhaps one of Laidlaw’s greatest accomplishments thus far has been the life his teams’ successes have injected back into the program.
“Our interest in our program has absolutely never been higher,” he observed. “We had so many kids tryout for freshman, junior varsity and our varsity team. We have kids on the team that just demanded I keep them because they worked so hard in the off season.”
The Wildcats open their season on the road on Dec. 12 against the Walled Lake Central Vikings at 7 p.m. The team’s home-opener will take place on Dec. 17 against the Avondale Yellow Jackets.