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Monroeville ready to reverse course after seasons of struggling

Mark Hazelwood • May 12, 2015 at 5:32 PM

Ryan Stower sat underneath a team banner that hasn't been touched in a quarter of a century before practice Monday, never taking his eyes off the ball he was dribbling.

On a simple, two-word question, the Monroeville senior point guard paused for a response he hopes he won't need much longer:

Why Monroeville?

"Once you have success, you don't want to stop, right?" Stower said. "We did something last year that had not been done around here in a long time, so we believe this could be the year we put Monroeville back on the map."

The numbers since reaching Ohio's basketball summit are glaring, if not disconcerting, for the Monroeville program.

A state championship in the 1983-84 season was suppose to set the foundation for years of success to come, but it never came close to happening.

Monroeville's had just three winning seasons in the 26 years since the title, including 12 seasons of five wins or fewer and eight seasons of three wins or fewer.

Over that span, the Eagles have had 11 coaches, including four different coaches in the four years immediately followed the championship season.

There was also a 2-25 record in the tournament -- highlighted by a 22-game losing streak -- prior to last season's sectional championship in Division IV.

But Stower and five of his classmates, who began their high school careers with a Firelands Conference title as freshmen, know they can make it all go away as the 2010-11 season gets underway tonight at Mansfield Christian.

"We haven't had much success in the past, but with one big year, maybe people will start recognizing Monroeville," Stower said. "If we do have success, hopefully it will keep things rolling."

Time to deliver

Ryan Dragon isn't afraid to say it.

After all, it's been so bad, there is no reason not to lay it out there.

"This season ... It's the most important as there's ever been in past 26 years," said Dragon, the team's senior center. "I think everyone here feels like we finally have a full team.

"We have shooters, we have a point guard and solid posts. It's really an all-around good team, which is why people on the outside are probably looking at us and finally putting serious expectations on us."

'Serious expectations.' It could be argued that merely being a unanimous second place in the preseason poll to front-runner and perennial power Western Reserve is one of the bigger accomplishments in recent memory.

Born and raised in Monroeville, Stower is aware of the program's futility in recent years. But he also points to what he feels is an obvious reason to believe the Eagles are ready to be a legitimate contender.

"There's no doubt the talent in the FC was very high last year," Stower said. "I'm not going to lie, a lot of talent graduated. I don't want to say the talent is down widespread, but there is definitely a lot less. That improves anyone's chances if you think about it."

As the team's third captain with Stower and Dragon, guard Skylar Old said a successful season is more than just a possible addition to the program's banner in the gym.

A successful future may hinge on it.

"It's real important, especially after coming off a sectional championship," Old said. "Maybe if things go right, we can put another year up on the banner, but more importantly, bring basketball back to Monroeville."

Such a statement is also something coach Zac Reer admitted. When Reer took over in 2004, he became the 11th coach in a 19-year span. Today, he's the longest-tenured coach in the program since Jerry Everhart coached for 10 seasons from 1963-72.

"It's important because this group has the opportunity to set the standard here," he said. "They can set a standard in this program of what is expected here, on and off the floor."

However, Reer knows it's a big jump from mediocrity to success for his program with several obstacles in the way -- Mike Smith, Chris Sheldon and Tom Howell.

In his 21 seasons coaching St. Paul, Smith has averaged 14 wins per season. Sheldon has led Western Reserve to 17 wins per season in his eight years, and Howell at New London has averaged 14 wins in his five years.

The perfect storm

Sheldon will be the first to admit he saw this coming.

The Western Reserve coach begins his ninth year as coach of the Roughriders tonight, and his team's have been the most consistent measuring stick in the FC during that time with 132 wins, four FC titles, three second places and a third place finish.

"I don't think there is any reason why they can't compete for the FC championship and make a nice tournament run," Sheldon said of the Eagles. "With each year, you could see the progression of Zac's program to get to this point."

Sheldon said Stower has the potential to do something for Monroeville that he's seen before. A strikingly similar situation took place at Western when Sheldon arrived in the 2002-03 season with a junior named Shawn Shriver.

Shriver became the Roughriders' all-time leading scorer (1,362 points) and helped guide Western to a 20-2 mark as a senior while being selected first-team All-Ohio.

"It's an eerily similar feeling when I took over here with Shawn," he said. "If it weren't for him, I don't know if the Western Reserve program would be where it is at this point and time. He did everything he had to do for my team in games and in practice, which changed the culture and shaped the fundamentals of what our program has been built on.

"That's what young Mr. Stower has the capability of doing. He is a very confident player, and confident players tend to believe the are the best on the floor and his team should be the best. I'm just glad we only have to play him two times and not three."

But all the talk and hype will not win any games for a struggling program that has yet to experience what it takes to be a consistent winner.

"I think we've made strides towards that, but they need to understand that every night for 32 minutes, you have to play hard and together," he said. "That's something we're still trying to learn."

It's also something that at the end of the day, is up to them to figure out.

"We know if we lose a game, we don't point fingers," Dragon said. "It's on us this year. If we lose a game, we have to get back at practice the next day and go hard."

With the Monroeville wrestling program fresh off a state championship and returning three wrestlers going for their fourth individual state titles, the basketball program can still share the spotlight at the small school.

"We're not mad or envious of all the media attention they get, because they've earned and deserve it," Stower said of the wrestlers. "They are all going Division I in college and doing their thing.

"We're friends with them, and it's cool if we're known as a wrestling school because of their accomplishments. We want to both be up there. The basketball team wants that. Everyone wants that."

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