When The Out-of-Door Academy boys basketball team forced a three-second violation on Cardinal Mooney High Jan. 21, the crowd erupted and ODA head Coach B.J. Ivey raised his arms in celebration.
A few minutes later, when ODA senior Trent Rayman sent a blocked shot from Mooney sophomore Dylan Higgins out of bounds, a loud "ooh" echoed through the Thunderdome. Ivey clapped and encouraged his defense to keep it up.
Then ODA junior Zach Fox hit a 3-pointer that left Ivey smiling once again.
But those highlights all happened with the Thunder far behind on the scoreboard. A competitive first half — the Thunder trailed 22-16 — gave way to a deluge of ODA mistakes in the third quarter, caused in part by the Cougars running a full-court press that the Thunder couldn't solve. By the time the fourth quarter began, ODA trailed 43-21. The game, which ODA lost 53-31, was over.
Ivey, who previously coached the Riverview High boys program for 13 years and took the Rams to the state championship game in 2016, never stopped trying to make his team better. The Thunder (5-13) might not be getting the win/loss results they want but they are certainly learning.
Ivey, who was named Sarasota County's Teacher of the Year in 2017, is still having a great time helping them improve.
"Winning is never the end game for me," Ivey said. "I think winning is a byproduct of the process. These kids come in and work hard every day and it is good to see that. They're starting to make positive plays and starting to have success. I'm happy for them in that regard. The outcomes aren't what we want right now but you also want kids to have a positive overall experience and I feel like they have had that."
The 2021-2022 season is Ivey's second at ODA but he said it feels like his first. Last season, Ivey was not on campus during the day, instead working as a driver's education teacher at Parrish Community High. This year, Ivey is back in the classroom teaching AP psychology and serving as an assistant athletic director and a senior advisor. Being on campus and around the team much more than he was last season has made a world of difference. Ivey said the distance made it hard to build relationships with both his players and the ODA staff.
Even though this is his first school year on campus, Ivey already has become a respected member of the school's community. As the game against Mooney came to a close, someone from the ODA student section threw a piece of candy onto the court. The ref stopped the game and told the section to knock it off — then Ivey jogged to the bleachers to reiterate the message, telling the students that while he loved their passion for ODA sports, disrupting the game like they did was not helping anyone. When Ivey turned to head back toward the bench, he received cheers from the rest of the crowd.
Now that he's settled, Ivey is focusing on the challenges that come with coaching at a small private school as opposed to a large public school like Riverview. Ivey said the biggest change is having the majority of the basketball roster playing other sports. At Riverview, that would apply to one or two players each year. Ivey said he's supportive of athletes being involved in other activities and learning new skills, but it also makes scheduling spring and summer practices a hassle. When not everyone can show up to a workout or to attend camps, it becomes hard to gain the chemistry and development necessary for the season.
"We have grown a lot in terms of basketball IQ and our understanding of how we need to play the game to try to be successful," Ivey said. "Our ability to take care of the basketball is much better than it was (at the beginning of the season). When we played at Lemon Bay (on Dec. 20) and at Bradenton Christian (on Nov. 23), I think we we averaging upward of 30 turnovers per game. Now we are way down from that and that's big."
The Thunder would have more wins if it had controlled the ball early like it does now. The game against Lemon Bay went into overtime despite all the turnovers and ODA would lose 71-65. Four other losses were also within 10 points. The team still wouldn't be a powerhouse, but winning a few of those toss-up games would be more reflective of the program's path.
Even though the players have a losing record, they are fighting through each game. The game against Mooney was an example. All the highlight plays I mentioned came in the fourth quarter. ODA could have easily packed it in against the Cougars, a state title contender in Florida High School Athletic Association's Class 3A, and not played hard until the final buzzer. The Thunder's fight late in the game tells me a lot about how much the players care about each other.
"I have to give it up to them," Ivey said. "If they get knocked down, they get right back up. A lot of people have a hard time handling adversity but our guys have done a great job of it. I think that says a lot about who these young men are and what they are going to be capable of doing in the future."
It's not just talk. The Thunder have unearthed two foundational pieces in sophomore wing Kevin O'Donoghue (16.1 points per game) and eighth grade guard Henry Ye (15.0 points per game). The duo can't do it alone, of course, but they're a good start and should continue to get better, especially on the defensive end. If the Thunder can continue to develop players like them and cut down on mistakes of inexperience, like turnovers, winning will become a habit.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.