Whether it’s open gym hours, weight lifting sessions or competing for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program, the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team has seen a significant spike in overall …
Whether it’s open gym hours, weight lifting sessions or competing for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program, the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team has seen a significant spike in overall offseason involvement this summer.
The rise in participation has been no accident. When Ellsworth head coach Derek Staley took the reins last summer, one of his primary goals was to overhaul offseason programming and cultivate a culture around continual improvement.
That culture has developed, despite Ellsworth’s 5-20 record last season, which was its worst since 2014-15. Staley, who is entering his second year, is still constructing the foundation of his program. Rebuilding is often accompanied by adversity, which his players haven’t shied away from. Instead, they’ve embraced it, as offseason numbers have done nothing but skyrocket.
“I thought (our numbers) would spike at some point, but I didn’t know when it was going to happen,” Staley said. “We had a down year last year in terms of varsity record, and you never know what that’s going to do for numbers and confidence with the kids. Sometimes you think maybe some would hang it up, but none of them have.”
Instead of hanging up the sneakers for good, Ellsworth’s core group of players have laced them up and gotten to work with offseason programming. For some, that has been putting up shots at open gym. For others, it has been lifting weights and competing in an AAU circuit.
Regardless of what the individual athletes are doing, the difference is that they’re involved more than ever. In years past, a handful of players frequented open gym hours and took part in weight lifting sessions.
Since Staley took over and placed an emphasis on the importance of more structured offseason development, player buy-in is as high as it has been in years. For coach Staley, that recommitment to the program is reflected through the spike in offseason involvement figures.
“Our buy-in has been awesome and the kids are excited and working hard,” Staley said. “We have more kids at open gym than we’ve ever had and they’re way more responsive. Last year we had three guys playing AAU freshman through senior. This year I think we have 13. We have a lot more guys playing a lot more basketball, which is what we need to be doing.”
Staley and the Panthers dove into offseason programming as soon as was allowed by WIAA regulations. Ellsworth’s first game action of the summer was a two-day, six-game tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on June 10 and 11.
In that tournament, which featured 17 Ellsworth players between the varsity and JV rosters, the Panthers competed against stiff competition, including a pair of Milwaukee-area schools and a 1,500 enrollment out-of-state squad from Marquette, Michigan.
Ellsworth held its own, even against some of those top teams from the lower corner of the state. That included a six-point loss against Milwaukee Marshall, a Division 2 program that went 13-6 last year and won the Milwaukee City-Blue Conference.
Although Ellsworth ultimately came up short, the Panthers battled into the closing minutes and had a legitimate chance to win in crunch time. For coach Staley, seeing his athletes compete against larger schools with physically imposing players was a sign his team is improving.
“Our first game was against Marquette, Michigan,” Staley said. “They were a big and physically talented team. That was good for our kids to see. Their guards are mature, strong guys. Then we played Milwaukee Marshall. They were solid and that was a really good game. We battled back and forth, but they ended up winning a six-point game.”
A litany of players have improved throughout the offseason, but few have rivaled the jump that now-senior Parker Woodland has made. Last season, Woodland occupied the sixth-man role for a majority of the year before Staley inserted him in the starting lineup late in the regular season.
Throughout the rest of that campaign and into this offseason, Woodland has developed both on and off the court. He has added to his game offensively and has taken on a larger role, while also stepping up in the locker room as one of the veteran leaders.
“Parker (Woodland) has certainly stepped up,” Staley said. “He has taken a leadership role, which is outside of his comfort zone, but that’s where he’s going to learn and grow. He’s lifting and getting stronger, and I think high jumping helped too. He has certainly stood out this summer. Parker still has a long way to go, but he’s on the right track for sure.”
In addition to the tournament at UW-Oshkosh, Ellsworth competed at the Falcon Shootout at UW-RF on Saturday, June 17. The Panthers also play in the Altoona Summer League, which features more than a dozen local teams that compete every Monday night.
Staley has kept his Panthers busy, often against tough competition, with the hope that it will expedite development and lead to more victories this winter. Ellsworth won just five total contests last winter and finished 2-12 in Middle Border Conference action.
“The idea is to get experience playing a bunch of basketball against different teams,” Staley said. “Our basketball IQ wasn’t the highest last year. We just need to catch up by playing games against tougher opponents. That’s what was great about the Oshkosh trip; we played teams that we’d otherwise never see.”
Despite some of the struggles in the last couple of years, Staley has kids believing that the program is heading in the right direction. Offseason numbers are up across the board and his message has resonated with the athletes.
“We’ve gained a freshman or two and everyone else is back,” Staley said. “That tells me that we’re doing the right things. You can’t always control winning games and talent level, but you can control your work ethic. Kids are enjoying it and learning, so hopefully the numbers speak for themselves that way.”