The 2008-’09 GHS Ridgerunner basketball season was a successful run that concluded in the consolation semi-finals of the 4A-III area tournament last week with a loss to Tulsa McLain. Along the way the program collected a district championship and a regional runner-up placing. The high honors were a just reward for a team that had to overcome a lot of things throughout their campaign.
Head Coach Doug Winters entered his first season in the Grove red and white this year. But having a new coach was only one adjustment that the troops had to make.
“I knew we’d go through some growing pains,” Winters said. “The kids had to learn about me and I had to get to know them.
“We had some new kids and a new coach,” Winters added.
A late start to the season only added to the challenges.
“I had some grandiose plans for the pre-season but when the football season extended I had to re-adjust all of those plans,” Winters said. “Ten of my fourteen varsity players were footballers.
“So there was a lot of adjustment and trying to do a lot of things on the fly,” Winters continued. “We had one practice together as a whole team and then opened up in the Tahlequah tournament. And we won our first game.”
A big part of overcoming the early challenges had to do with the quality players of the program, according to the coach.
“The kids were wonderful. They just kept working,” Winters said. “I am going to miss this group of seniors. They really made the underclassmen feel welcome. There was no team dissention. We never had to have any type of team meeting dealing with any sort of problems. That really makes my job as a coach a lot easier. We had enough on our plate without having to worry about that stuff.”
The ’08-’09 edition of the Ridgerunners featured six seniors, all of whom contributed greatly to the cause: Trent Winters, Tyler Spychalski, Ryan Miller, Reid Harding, Chris Graham, and Jack Johnson.
“It really hit me hard that this was it,” Winters said of his son Trent’s final game last week. “The game where we beat Victory Christian (the regional semi-finals) he took over the last two minutes and really helped seal the win.
“Coach Collins (Jeremy, GHS assistant) mentioned to me that he thought Trent added a dimension of leadership to the group. After the game against Victory I told Trent that no one could ever take that memory away,” Winters said.
Miller was the emotional component that helped drive the team according to the coach.
“What a spirit,” Winters said of Miller. “He never says die. He’s a great kid.
“A team is made up of different personalities. Our team needed an emotional, hard-nosed, physical player like Ryan,” Winters added.
Graham had a breakout senior year and played with increasing poise and confidence as the season wore on.
“Chris worked hard to get back into the starting line up,” Winters said. “He shot the ball well at the end of the year. His perimeter shooting was very much needed because Miller and Spy (Spychalski) were drawing a lot of attention on the inside. Teams were leaving Chris alone and we was busting it and making them pay. I liked what he was able to bring to our mix.”
Reid Harding had one of hs best performances ever in his final start with the Ridgerunners against McLain.
“Reid, against McLain, was everywhere,” Winters said. “At that game I told the boys, ‘If you were to never play another basketball game in your life, how do you want this one remembered?’ That second half against McLain was some of the best basketball he ever played, at least since I’ve been here.
“He was everywhere,” Winters continued. “Steals, physical, hitting the outside shots, taking it to the hole, hitting free throws, I mean, he did it all that game.”
Johnson was a versatile player who could land both the outside shots and drive through the paint for a basket. He was also a valuable defensive player for GHS this season.
“Jack did a great job for us all year,” Winters said. “He added a dimension and energy to our team.”
Spychalski was the leader of the team this season according to the coach.
“I put a big load on Spychalski,” Winters said. “I told him before the season started that he was going to be ‘the guy.’ He was the floor leader. He had to get everyone involved. I had a great relationship with him. He was willing to listen.
“There were some games where he just looked phenomenal,” Winters said. “It got to where people started putting two guys on him and he had to defer and trust in his teammates and he did that.
“When push came to shove the kids looked to Spy to lead them,” Winters added. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of senior leaders. They made a lot of things very easy for me.”
Reflecting on the McLain game Winters said he had “mixed emotions.”
“I’m feeling good and bad,” Winters said. “I’m feeling bad because I thought we could have played a little better. But I’m feeling good about everything that the kids accomplished this year.
“I feel good that the kids kept believing in what we were trying to do,” Winters added. “They could have got down early in the season but they didn’t.”
The second half of the final season game was played almost entirely by the seniors.
“I remember how it felt when I was a senior and we were losing that last game,” Winters said. “I wanted the kids to have a chance to get some good memories and good feelings of how they played.”
The seniors gave way to the underclassmen in the final minutes of the game. As they approached the bench they were given a long, standing ovation by the Ridgrunner faithful that were in attendance. It was an emotional scene for players and fans alike.
“We wanted the young kids to come on the floor and get a little bit of experience of playing in the area tournament,” Winters said about the conclusion to the game. “But more than that it gave the fans a chance to give the seniors some recognition and applause for what they’ve given the school for four years.”