“I’m big into being a commitment guy. You have to be committed to your players, and you’ll get that way by practicing and staying intense. They’re starting to build a tradition here, and I want to further it.”
—Matt Saunders, 2013-14 Gazette Winter Coach of the Year
Those were the words of Matt Saunders when he was hired to coach the Buckeye boys basketball team in June 2008.
It was mature statement for the then 24-year-old Liverpool Elementary gym teacher to make. He only had three years of experience at the freshman level — albeit with a stellar 49-11 record at his alma mater, Rocky River — and not much else that stood out.
But Buckeye’s superintendent at the time, Dennis Honkola, who coached Brunswick from 1993-96, saw unbridled passion and magnetic personality. With coaches needing to relate to players more than ever, Saunders fit the bill well, though it ultimately took his high school coach, Tom Thompson, to convince him to accept Honkola’s offer.
Flash forward nearly six years and no one is questioning Buckeye’s decision after the wildly entertaining Bucks won 21 games, broke records seemingly every other night and came within two points of their first district championship game this season.
The senior-laden 2013-14 team will forever be remembered as one of the best in school history, making Saunders a slam-dunk choice — pun intended — for Gazette Winter Coach of the Year.
Saunders began his varsity career with four straight losing seasons, but knew good times were coming because the middle school teams were lighting up the Patriot Athletic Conference.
How special the class of 2014 was going to be was the lingering question, so he kept preaching commitment — a message made easier with former varsity head coaches Howie Calame Jr. (Buckeye) and Dan Flood (Firestone) at the middle school level.
After Garrett Beck, Jeff Miller, Cory Inman, Chris Vogt and John Tighe reached the varsity stage and went 13-10 last season, Saunders fine-tuned them into a well-oiled machine that went 21-4 and won the PAC Stars Division championship with a 15-1 mark this winter.
The accomplishments were lengthy and historic.
l A school record for wins (21) that had stood since 1957-58.
l The school’s first sectional title since 1993 and deepest tournament run by reaching the Westlake Division II District semifinals.
l A broken 51-year-old defensive mark with a 47.0 average.
l The top two winning streaks (11 and 10) in school history — in the same season, no less.
l Quality wins over Columbia (19 victories) and Clearview (18) and Suburban League champion Highland (15), as well as Keystone (16) twice.
l Losses to Division III state-ranked Norwayne (22-3), Wadsworth (16-8) — a school twice Buckeye’s size — PAC Stripes Division champion Lutheran West (19-5) and Vermilion (19-8). Those four teams had a 76-24 record, and three of Buckeye’s defeats were by one possession.
l The best offensive average (65.4) since 1978 and third highest since the district consolidated in 1953.
l A 13-0 home record with a 26.8-point average margin of victory.
Combine everything and Saunders was the undisputed Northeast Inland District Coach of the Year and shared D-II Ohio Coach of the Year with four others.
“The kids played with a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “Every big game last year, we lost. When you go through that and you feel what it’s like to come up short in those big games, you obviously don’t want to feel that again. The kids almost craved those close games so they could prove something.”
On the surface, it’s easy to say Saunders rode a close-knit, mature, unselfish and hard-working group of seniors to history.
Those who saw Buckeye play know better.
The Bucks still had to learn how to play in the half court after running teams into submission most of their lives. They also had to learn how to play defense, rebound and treat every practice like it was their last.
Saunders, whose witty sense of humor relates to 16-, 17- and 18-year-old players, made this possible by shaking stubbornness so many coaches can’t.
No better example was a matchup 2-3 zone defense.
Saunders knew man wasn’t going to cut it anymore after the Bucks allowed 59.4, 54.0, 60.9 and 55.6 points per game — slightly below average for high school teams — over the previous four seasons.
He responded with an aggressive 1-3-1 in the half court during the summer, but found out quickly it wasn’t going to work due to the Bucks’ lack of depth.
Saunders then studied Michigan coach Jim Beilein, a disciple of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, and switched to a 2-3 to help keep his players from getting gassed and in foul trouble. The size of Beck, Miller and Vogt made protecting the rim and rebounding pieces of cake, and the aggressiveness of guards Tighe and Inman and backups Tyler Hagmeier and Nate Polidori up top made the defense proactive instead of reactive.
The numbers proved its effectiveness, as Buckeye allowed less than 50 points 17 times and outrebounded opponents in 20 of its 25 games. The Bucks also avoided foul trouble remarkably well, which proved vital considering they didn’t have a backup post in their seven-man rotation.
“It was amazing how much the kids liked the 2-3,” Saunders said. “We thought we’d be 50 percent man and 50 percent zone, but we were so much better in the zone that it took on a life of its own.”
Offensively, Saunders dug out a high-low offense for 6-foot-3 power forward Miller and 6-5 center Vogt he hadn’t used in five years. He also sprinkled in a corner 3-pointer for 1,000-point scorer Beck, but gave the players, who still preferred to transition at will with their top-notch chemistry, the freedom to improvise.
Roles then became defined almost naturally. Shooting guard Tighe blossomed with a flashy game most coaches would have tried to corral, and Inman, a prototypical pass-first point guard and leader, ran the show with precision.
More importantly, the Bucks could adjust to any game plan thrown at them.
“Offensively, we were a little bit of the perfect storm,” Saunders said. “We had five very, very different players, so they all brought a little bit to the table.
“If you’re going to be really good, you’re going to have to play in the half court because good teams can take that away. This year we completed the package.”
Buckeye’s season ended with a heartbreaking 74-72 loss to Vermilion in arguably the game of the Medina County season. The Bucks shot a blistering .588 from the floor and Beck played out of his mind (27 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists), but Buckeye allowed 36 points to All-Ohioan Cameron Kuhn and blew a six-point fourth-quarter lead.
The Sailors later lost to eventual state champion Norwalk in overtime in the regional semifinals. That made the Bucks’ loss doubly hard to swallow for the seniors who put their blood, sweat and tears into the program, but Saunders believes it proves Buckeye has come a long way in a short period of time.
The time to start dreaming big has arrived.
“Players like playing for the coaches we have at the various levels,” he said. “We have fun with the kids, but obviously we have their respect. That says a lot.
“I think at Buckeye in general, athletics are really going to shine in the next few years because we’re making more of a commitment to athletics. As that happens and as you get more notoriety and success, all of that turns in your favor. We’re capitalizing on this, and hopefully we’ll keep moving forward.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.