We dove into what it is like to coach in a basketball crazed area like Huron County and town like New London and just how hard it is to go from being a South Central grad to a New London faithful.
Here is this week’s Saturday Conversation:
Jake Furr: The first thing I really want to talk about was that historic 2015-16 season when you guys won the district championship. Take me back to that year. What do you remember most about it? That was the first one in school history right?
Eric Mitchell: Yeah it was. Going in, it was my third year as head coach of the girls program. They year before, we made it to the district championship game but got beat by Oak Harbor. But that 2015-16 season was one of those years to remember. I just spoke about it with a parent earlier this week. It was one of those season that anyone who was involved with it, it is just memorable. I don’t want to use it and I haven’t yet with the team that have followed them, but that team really showed just what it takes to win a district title. Those girls busted their butts in the summer. They were in the gym at this time of the year when it is hot and miserable and the only thing you want to do is go to the pool. They were in the gym because they wanted to get better. It showed because that season, we had a monster to deal with in the Firelands Conference in Crestview. They were our two losses in the conference, but things really started clicking during the tournament and we knew it was going to be a special year. We did it the year before and that was what we wanted to do again. Once we got to the district tournament, we had to see St. Paul for the third time that season and that made us very nervous. They were very athletic, but once we got through them and got to the district final, I thought St. Paul was better than that Calvert team. We jumped up with a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter and we lost that lead which I take full responsibility for. We went into overtime and ended up winning by seven.
The way the town backed us was just amazing to see especially from a small town like this. When you win, everyone is on board and it was just great to see how they followed us. I am hoping that starts something here with the girls’ basketball culture. I spent time on the boys’ staff and you can just see it is a basketball strong town. We have had great success in baseball, but it would be nice to build that winning culture not just in girls’ sports, but in New London sports in general. That year we went to the regional tournament in Elida almost two and a half hours away and it felt like a home game. The entire town was there. Watching that film and seeing that shot that Eden Copley took, if it was a half inch to the left, we would have gone to regional finals. But that season has been my defining season as a coach and our coaching staff. My staff is amazing and I couldn’t do it with out them. My brother in law Joe (Thomas) who always wants to do the postgame interviews and my wife Jill stepping in last year. I truly believe you are only a good coach with a good staff. I trust those guys. But we have set the bar high with our recent success and luckily we haven’t had a losing season in my short four years here and I don’t want one and I know our girls doesn’t want one either. It was one of those seasons I will never forget. I have a collage in my office at home and I go in every once in a while and check it out.
JF: You talked about the basketball craze here in New London and from what I have experienced, this who area is a basketball crazy county and area. But one thing that really sticks out to me is the New London games and how the fans on the home side stand until the Wildcats or Lady Cats score a point. That is just a unique thing in high school sports. I don’t know if I have seen that anywhere else.
EM: That is true because being a South Central grad, I was always like look at those guys standing there. But I will never forget in 2008, when Plymouth played over here and New London didn’t score the entire first quarter.
JF: Yeah, that was my senior year.
EM: They stood the whole first quarter through timeouts and the quarter break. But it is an amazing tradition and there is nothing better that traditions in high school sports. Another thing that is really awesome about it is it has trickled over to the girls side and our fans do it for us now. It is a basketball thing at New London. You do not want it to take long and you want to get that quick bucket so the fans do not get upset because they have to stand so long, but it really motivates us to score early and get on a roll really quick.
This area is very strong in basketball from top to bottom. You sit and think about what Chris Sheldon and Laura Pierson have done at Western Reserve and what coach (Mike) Smith has done for years at St. Paul and what Vicky Mahl is starting to build again. With Joe Bedingfield taking over at Willard, you will see Willard jump back on the map because anyone who knows Joe and his work ethic knows he is going to get that team back up there. (Jon) Dawson is doing a great job with the Willard girls too so it is just amazing to see that boys and girls teams are all strong and they seem to be at the same school. I don’t know if it is the coaches working together, but that is one thing I make sure I do. Coach (Tom) Howell is one of my best friends and I bounce ideas off of him and he does the same. He asks how I defend different things and it is nice to be appreciated with your opinion and I treat him that way too. But it is awesome to go week to week and no matter where you go, you will enjoy a nice basketball game. I think about my alma mater and what Brett (Seidel) is doing with that team and how they are going to be loaded for years to come. I wish the best for them. I hate saying it unless they play us at New London, but I want to see them be successful. I want to see Brett get that school their first district title. It is special to know you are a part of that. I love the basketball atmosphere in our little part of North Central Ohio.
JF: Being a South Central grad, for me, if I went somewhere else other than Plymouth, it would be hard for me to go in with a mindset of wanting to beat Plymouth so bad. How do you separate being a South Central grad but a New London coach? I know you are pretty involved in the New London community so does it make it that much easier?
EM: What is funny is my wife Jill is a graduate of New London the same year I graduated from South Central in 1998. Her first teaching job was at South Central and she coached volleyball and softball there. My first teaching job when I got hired in 2008 was here at New London. I was an assistant football and basketball coach right away. I find myself pushing my players harder when we play South Central. I do not feel like I have to go over there and prove anything. I know all of the families over there and I still have nieces and nephews playing over there. When I play against my niece Bailey (Mitchell), my players always tell me that I coach way harder against her. I just want her to bring out her best, but I don’t want to lose to them. It is a bittersweet feeling, but I also love to be able to go in that gym and beat them. I still catch flack all of the time and get told I am a traitor (laughs) but New London was the one who took me in so I am dedicated to them. But once the season is over and we go to our tournament and they go to theirs, I am their No. 1 fan because I want to see my high school do well. When it is New London/South Central week, it gets a little amped up at practice because it is hard for me to take a loss over there. I hear it from my brother who talks smack and says we can’t beat them. (laughs)
JF: Coming into this next season, I don’t know if there is a bigger question mark on a team that the Lady Cats. You guys lose two players who were cornerstone players for years. You still have some really good young talent, but when I look at all of the teams in the area, I look and just ask myself, “How is New London going to do next season?”
EM: It is definitely a question mark. We have worked very hard this summer and went down to the Eastern Ohio camp this summer and anyone who has been there knows just how tough it is. 29 games in three days and it is a lot of basketball. It allowed me to see some things in some girls that I didn’t expect to see and let me see some things in some girls that you do not really want to see. You are right, the last two year, I have lost eight very prime players from this program. Then we lose Morgan (Luedy) and Eden (Copley) this year. Those were my two guards and they have been a part of this program since I have been here. There is a lot to be filled on this team. Our starting lineup last year has some returners for this season, but we could see a completely different five. I have Gabby (Ledbetter) back who is 6-foot-3 and I have an incoming freshman who could really help me. But this season is one of those situations where we have to make sure we work as hard as we possibly can every single day or it will be a long season. I think we will compete really well. Western has every tool back and they are expecting a lot of things from that team. St. Paul lost a boat load like I did two years ago, but it will take until the early part of November for us to really see where we fit in and what we are made of. If we do not work hard at practice, it could be a difficult year, but one thing we have always hung our hat on in the past is that we have worked extremely hard at practice every single day. Time will tell. I am not one to say where we will finish in the conference, but I have said it every year, I promise you we will go in and play hard every single game.
Sports Editor Jake Furr is sitting down with a player or a coach every week for a Saturday Conversation. If you have a suggestion to who he should sit down with next, email him at email@example.com or tweet at him at @JakeFurr11.