By Mark Maxwell
The Oak Forest Bengals (5-2) are off to one of their best starts in years. Embracing a defensive mindset, the Bengals broke out on a 17-2 run in the second quarter to propel them from a close contest to a comfortable 58-34 win over the Astros.
After the 1987 Bengals squad (28-3) fell to the state champion East Saint Louis team in the AA quarterfinals, the Oak Forest basketball program plummeted into a 25-year losing draught. After years of hard work, coach Matt Manzke has his players believing that they can change the culture.
“Let's be honest. Winning cures a lot of things,” Manzke said. “We've had our ups and downs throughout the years but this group especially has a chemistry about them because they've played together for a long time. They've invested a lot of time and energy together. Even in the bad times, these guys believe that they can do it. That really speaks to their character and how much they do believe in each other.”
Senior shooting guard Tom Shute has embraced the hard-nosed mentality from his coach and he’s reaping the dividends.
“Everything is easier when you start playing well,” Shute said. “You start playing well, practices are easier, games are easier. We believe in ourselves. We just got to play it out on the floor every night.”
They say you learn more about yourself in defeat than in victory. And perhaps that is true in the case of junior shooting guard, David Gray. Familiar with the bitter taste of defeat, Gray is working to continue adding tallies to the win column.
“Every day has got to start with hard work,” Gray said. “Every day, we going to come out and just work our butts off because you know every night any team could beat us. So we just got to stay focused and try to win our goal and that's a regional championship.”
The Bengals won’t be satisfied by finishing above .500. Boosted by their recent surge of success, they believe they have the talent, defense and scoring ability to dethrone Hillcrest as the South Suburban Blue conference champions. However, that will not be easy. The Hawks are the closest thing there is to a high school dynasty, having won 25 consecutive conference titles.
“It's not easy to change the culture and we've worked hard for a long time to try and do that,” said Manzke. “It does take a special group to believe and to put all those things into action. We're hopeful that these guys will continue to move forward and get better as we go.”
Manzke credits not only his starters, but also the effort of his bench. Their intensity and effort in practices has raised the level of competition within the locker room and on the court.
“This is one of the easiest teams I've ever had to coach because we have a bunch of guys who put the team first,” Manzke said. “We have guys on our team who don't score as much as they could, don't shoot as much as they could. We have guys who are willing to guard people, guys that are willing to take charges and we have guys who come every day and practice hard that don't get to play very often in the games. I can't speak enough about how much that helps us become a good team. These guys really buy into what we're trying to get them to do and they all have a role. No matter what the role is, they all do it to the best of their ability. To me, that's what this team is all about and that's why it’s such a special group.”