The approach remained pretty much the same, although the expectations were much higher.
Woodstock had a talented senior group returning, joined by a junior big man who could make a significant difference. But history was against the Blue Streaks, who had not produced a winning boys basketball team since 2001 or grabbed a regional championship plaque since 2000.
Woodstock coach Alex Baker was rewarded for his diligence and perseverance. The Blue Streaks banded together, determined to be much better than their 5-23 record a year ago.
The attitude, work and preparation propelled Woodstock in just the manner it hoped. The Streaks finished 19-11, won their first regional title in 13 years and Baker, because of their success, is the Northwest Herald Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
The honor is chosen by the sports staff with input from local coaches. Crystal Lake Central’s Rich Czeslawski, whose team had its third consecutive 20-plus-win season, and Hampshire’s Bob Barnett also received strong consideration. Those teams tied for the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division championship.
“I give all the credit to the boys and what they did,” said Baker, in his fifth year at Woodstock. “They bought into what we were trying to do and took us where we needed to get.”
The players, however, know how crucial Baker’s leadership was.
“He’s played a tremendous role,” guard Jordan Turner said. “In my freshman or sophomore year, we wouldn’t have had the participation in the offseason weightlifting that we had. He’s definitely reversed our attitude toward the basketball program from where it’s been. He’s done a good job fixing how our team gets looked at.”
Turner and fellow seniors Andy Buhrow, Jack McCoy, Keeondae Benjamin and Brad Kaufmann all played key roles. Center Damian Stoneking, a 6-foot-7 junior who was with the team briefly last season, was a vital piece to the puzzle. Baker talked with Stoneking last spring and they both agreed he should play. Stoneking was the force inside the Streaks hoped he would be.
“There are a few things you learn every year [as a coach], just like you expect the kids to get better,” Baker said. “A big thing is we finally have a coaching staff, on all levels, that’s stayed the same, and I think that’s making a big difference. There is consistency on all levels – feeder, middle school, freshman and sophomore levels – and that’s starting to pay off.”
Buhrow said the players enjoy being around Baker.
“You can talk to him like a friend, not just about basketball, but other things,” Buhrow said. “He definitely pushed us hard in practice and had us do more in the offseason. Our camps were better with more people coming to them. We thought we could do well.”
The next step will be remaining a consistent winner, although the future looks bright. Returning with Stoneking will be 6-3 senior Mitch Kohley, 6-3 sophomore Mason Sutter and 6-6 freshman Nick Kubiak.
“We have a pretty good idea what we’ll look like down low,” Baker said. “We graduate four guards who played a lot of minutes. I really like what we have to work with. We have great kids in the program. By Thursday after we got beat [in the Freeport Sectional] they were in the weightroom getting themselves prepared. Our young guys got a taste of where we can go.”