From rags to riches: Oxford slowly builds program to reach ultimate goal

| February 28, 2011 | Comments (1)

JUMP FOR JOY: Oxford head coach Brad Keeney embraces assistant coach Brandon Rank just seconds before the Wildcats clinched the state-title victory over Novi Detroit Catholic Central. Staff Photo | Larry McKee,

BATTLE CREEK — When a program is at an all-time low, it’s hard to imagine being up on top.

That’s the way Paul McDevitt viewed it in the mid-1990s when he took over Oxford’s wrestling program.

The program couldn’t even compete with a full lineup.

“They didn’t win a match the year before I took over,” recalled McDevitt, who became head coach at Oxford in the fall of 1994.

There’s a testament to the patience of taking over a struggling program and seeing it through the tough times to right the ship. McDevitt has been there ever since 1994, either as a head coach or as an assistant, and has been there for the many peaks and valleys.

Oxford was anything but a state power in wrestling some 15 years ago. But with McDevitt, longtime youth coach Doug Myer and the help of many faithful others over the years, the Wildcats slowly rose from the ashes.

It all came to a climax on Saturday evening, when Oxford rallied for a 26-25 victory over top-ranked, top-seeded and defending state champion Novi Detroit Catholic Central, which pulls students from over 100 zip codes in southeastern Michigan, in the Division 1 state title match at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena. The Wildcats had to win the final three weight classes to prevail.

That was preceded by a win over state powerhouse Hartland in the semifinals on Saturday morning.

Is this something that McDeivitt and others envisioned some 16-17 years ago?

“No,” smiled McDevitt, who stepped down from the head coach spot to being an assistant this season. “We dreamed. But actually being here?”

Coaches come and go in the arena of high school athletics. Many begin with the same sentiments … that they want to build a winner, build something special. But when the labor doesn’t produce much or any fruit in the early stages, there’s usually an exit and a new coach taking over a few years later.

McDevitt stuck with it, and as he put it, “thanks to the help of many people”, the Wildcats have been crowned a state champion.

For everyone involved, it was done the right way.

There wasn’t a huge load of talented student-athletes migrating to Oxford — when McDevitt took over, Oxford’s football and track teams were both recent winners of state titles but wrestling was an afterthought.

Wrestling was in bad shape at Oxford less than two decades ago. But it was given some slow-growing new life, and not some Acme instant grow potion that turned the Wildcats into an instant success story.

There was no undue influence — in the past 10-15 years, even public schools in Michigan are finding ways to hit the recruiting trail to bring in high-level athletes — and there was no shady characters looming in the hallways. There was no one encouraging kids to move to Oxford, or someone guaranteeing Division I college scholarships or many of the other enticing snack foods that people in the sports world use to try to build a winner.

It just was some good old-fashioned hard work — and a lot of patience and endurance over many years.

Oxford finally saw some fruit during the 1997-98 season, where the Wildcats captured their first Flint Metro League title.

The Wildcats first made the trek west on I-94 to Kellogg Arena in 1999 for the state quarterfinals. The Wildcats were state semifinalists that season, defeating Warren Lincoln in the quarterfinals before falling to powerful Lowell in the semis.

In December, 2000, Oxford captured its first Oakland County championship and has remained in the top-10 at that prestigious,45-plus-school meet ever since that victorious day.

In league competition, Oxford has finished first or second 11 straight times and has finished in the top three in conference play 13 years running. This season Oxford made the switch from the FML to the Oakland Activities Association, but still had the same results with unbeaten league season.

Although steady throughout the past dozen years, Oxford has really made push in recent years. The Wildcats have won regional titles in each of the past four seasons (six overall) to reach Kellogg Arena, and they have reached at least the semifinals each of those seasons.

In the 2008, the Wildcats were against state semifinalists, falling to Eaton Rapids in Division 2. The next year in 2009 they lost in the state finals to Lowell in their first-ever state championship match appearance.

In the 2009-10 season, Oxford bumped up to Division 1 enrollment-wise yet still advanced to the Final Four, this time falling to Catholic Central.

They did it all with Oxford kids, as new head coach Brad Keeney put it shortly before Saturday’s medals presentation.

“We did this because we are a family,” he offered firmly. “We had 14 Oxford kids — no recruits.”

Oxford, which has over 70 athletes on its wrestling team, is simply home grown talent. They mixed that talent with a brutally-trough schedule this year to try to brew up a winning formula. Those are some of the ingredients that worked for Oxford, which became the first public school from Oakland County to win a state title in wrestling since Lake Orion, Clarkston and Rochester Adams all won titles in the 1990s.

Myer started a youth/club team in Oxford in the mid-1990s, which has helped the program flourish and grow. And the coaching staff is on the same page, with no egos between the head coach and assistant coach. The Wildcats will often rotate coaches on mat-side during big meets, as Keeney, McDevitt and several other coaches took turns during Saturday’s wins over Hartland and Catholic Central.

Alan Wilfong, Brandon Rank, Joe Wood, Jim Gourlay, Jake Shagina, Scott Couch and Eric Kerr all played a part in this winning orchestra. Meyer is still behind the scenes today, teaching kids and working meets. Several former athletes have also helped lay the groundwork for this special occasion, leaving a legacy for each class to follow.

McDevitt, Keeney, Couch (who was the head coach for a couple of years) and several others have made large contributions to building towards, Feb. 26, 2011.

That is the day that will live in infamy for Oxford’s wrestling program. That is the day the Wildcats were finally crowned state champions.

And they did it the right way, even if it took a few years to get to the promised land.

(Daniel Stickradt is Senior Editor-Publisher for the Stickradt Media Group and He can be reached by e-mail at Fans can also follow us on Twitter at LocalSportsFans and NOS is found on Facebook, Myspace, Mixx, Digg, LinkedIn and Flickr.)

Category: Editor's Column, High School, Oxford, Prep Wraps, Publishers Viewpoint

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