After the way Trotwood-Madison spent the entire game pressing, trapping and harassing Meadowbrook in the Division II state semifinal Friday at the Schottenstein Center – destroying the Colts, 88-42, in a game in which officials kept the clock running in the fourth quarter so the punishment wasn’t prolonged – you’d think the Rams would attribute their success first and foremost to their pressure.
Myles Belyeu said no, the key word is “family.”
“After every practice, every game, every team meeting, we say ‘Family on 3,’ ” the Rams’ first team All-Ohio guard said. “One, two, three … family!”
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Junior center Justin Stephens agreed and said Coach Rocky Rockhold has instilled that belief on all of them.
“He told us we’re all his family. If we have problems in school, in life, we need to talk to him and the other coaches. He says the gym should be a haven for us.”
Just before practice the other day Rockhold talked about that.
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“We spend as much time taking kids home after practice, getting them meals, making sure their grades are OK and they’re OK as we do dealing with X’s and O’s.”
While the X and O part is going well – the Rams are now 26-3, have won 19 in a row and will meet Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in today’s state title game – they had to deal with plenty away from the court this season and that’s where family came in.
The toughest situation happened just over seven weeks ago when seven armed and masked teenagers robbed an AT&T store in Huber Heights in the morning. They threatened to shoot employees and customers, then fled and soon were caught. Investigators now think they are tied to other area robberies.
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The only adult who was arrested was 18-year-old Caleb Johnson, an All-Ohio football player at Springfield High who had numerous scholarship offers. A year ago, though, he was at Trotwood and played basketball, as well. Coming off the bench, he played significant minutes in the state semifinal loss to Akron SVSM.
One of the juveniles who was charged was a 6-5 junior for the Rams this season who was developing as another inside presence for the team. He had had some other brushes with the law in previous years and his dad was arrested two years ago for drug possession.
The Rams players knew both these guys well and the situation left them shaken.
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“It was really hard for everybody,” Rockhold said. “With the kid we had, I knew he was doing better in school and felt he had finally found a place around guys doing the right thing. That’s why it hurt so much.
“The thing is, we’re only around them a few hours a day and you don’t know the environment around some of them at home and what’s going on just outside their front door. Sometimes that allure is a bigger draw than what we can impact.”
Senior guard Hezikiah Shaw talked about losing one of their teammates:
“This is like a brotherhood here and we were trying to save one of our brothers from that lifestyle. It didn’t work out and that’s when the coaches stepped in. They kept us together. They said that doesn’t mean all the rest of you fall apart now. We’re family and we’ll do the right thing here.”
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Rockhold said: “To be honest, for a few days we got away from basketball and talked a lot more than normal. We stressed it’s about making good decisions and who we are centering ourselves around. You have to carry yourself in a different way and that’s what our guys have done.”
After Friday’s game, Shaw said the team was able to do that because of Rockhold and the other coaches:
“Coach is like a father figure to us. He loves us all unconditionally. We believe in him and that’s why we’re here now.”
The odd couple
To the uninitiated, Rockhold and the Rams might seem like The Odd Couple.
He’s a towering white guy who grew up in rural Greene County and the team is made up entirely of black kids from Trotwood just west of Dayton.
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With some disbelief that you’d think otherwise, Belyeu said that makes no difference:
“He’s a coach! At the end of the day we don’t worry about any of that. We know what he gives us and what we give him. We are family.”
After starring at Greeneview High, Rockhold played at Mount Vernon Nazarene, then returned to his old high school as an assistant coach and then the head coach. After he had several successful seasons there though, some players and parents balked at his vocal approach and he eventually resigned.
He joined Mark Baker, who had taken over the Trotwood program in 2008 and spent three years as an assistant. When Baker left, he got the head coaching job and found it a better fit than at his alma mater.
“The biggest piece for me was that I would have a chance to impact lives,” said Rockhold, who had gotten a social work degree and would spend 20 years working in a youth training and employment program for Montgomery County.
His first season he went 12-8 and heard from armchair coaches in the stands.
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“This can be a tough place to coach,” he grinned. “There are a lot of critics sitting up there and I struggled with that early on and really took it to heart. Now it’s gotten to the point where I feel we’re doing right by the kids, so I don’t worry about it.”
The team has an overall 3.3 GPA said athletics director Guy Fogle. Belyeu has a 3.6 GPA and fellow star Amari Davis, a 6-foot-4 guard and third team All-Ohioan, has a 3.5 GPA.
As for on the court success, since that initial season Rockhold has taken three teams in five years to the state tournament and has an overall record of 155-29.
And today the Rams are hoping to make up for last year’s two-point loss to SVSM, a team they had beaten by 39 earlier in the season.
Rockhold said the setback – after a final seconds turnover and a SVSM shot at the buzzer – has served as “motivation all year,” not because of what SVSM did, but because of what they didn’t do:
“We felt like we didn’t play our best game on the biggest stage.”
Suited to be a coach
Rockhold – with his shaved head and his always pacing, always talking style — is an animated sight on the sideline. And always he’s in a sweat suit.
Shaw was asked if the team ever envisioned him decked out in a slick suit the way the old Dunbar coaches used to dress.
“I don’t think that’s his style,” he laughed. “He likes to chill and he’s so energetic on the sideline, I don’t think a suit would work for him. He’d bust out of it. And we don’t want him to stop. If he stopped with the energy, we might stop. We feed off of it.”
Stephens felt the same: “You don’t want a guy who is stoic. He’s going through everything with us.”
That is one reason Rockhold picked up two technical fouls in an early tournament game against Northwestern and was automatically suspended for the Rams’ next two games.
“I just felt like the team we were playing had a game plan where they’d foul us a lot because they couldn’t run with us,” he said. “I felt a lot of those fouls were beyond being physical and I wanted it known.”
Exiled from the sideline, he said he thought about not attending the games against Northridge and Chaminade Julienne:
“But then Myles was like, ‘Coach, you are our coach. If you’re allowed to be there, be there.’
“I sat in the stands, but I was a nervous wreck. It felt like I was watching the game with duct tape on my mouth and my hands handcuffed together. I kept worrying I’d be a distraction.”
He was not and the Rams have kept rolling. They are now one victory away from the school’s first title in four trips to state.
“Don’t get me wrong, we want to win,” Rockhold said. “But being in this as long as I have and especially with this year, I know it’s about more than just winning games. It’s about winning kids, as well. We want them to be safe and successful and be part of something special.”
And they are. They’re family.