It has been a long journey for Eric Oakes through the Swanton basketball program, but finally he has reached the top. And when long time girls basketball coach Frank Onweller decided to step down after the season, Oakes, with the support of many involved with Swanton athletics, took aim for and was awarded the position.
The 1992 Swanton alum was approved as head coach at the school’s board meeting in May.
“We look for a variety of qualities when searching for a head coach,” said Swanton Athletic Director Wade Haselman. “A few of the main qualities are knowledge of the game, passion for the game, a good work ethic and someone who we feel will not only allow us to improve on the court but will make our kids better off of the court as well. Eric has shown us repeatedly through his work as an assistant girls basketball coach and as our head golf coach all of these qualities.”
“We feel very confident that with Eric we will be able to continue to run the program in a manner similar to Mr. Onweller.”
Oakes’ predecessor was also extremely supportive of the school’s decision.
“Eric has proven himself to be a successful coach, not only as the JV coach last season but also as the 8th grade coach for both the girls’ and boys’ programs and as the head golf coach,” said Onweller of Oakes. “He’s a hard worker and he knows the game of basketball. I think another quality that had to support the decision to hire him is the support for all the different sports teams that he has demonstrated his desire to see all the Swanton teams succeed.”
He began his journey seven years ago, under the direction of Swanton’s boys basketball coach at the time, Tim Zieroff, who assigned Oakes to be the eighth grade boys basketball coach.
“That first day, that first practice, I was hooked on coaching basketball,” explained Oakes. “I think from then on I have always enjoyed coaching eighth grade. I thought it was a great age to teach kids how to play basketball. And as I got going over the years, I think definitely coaching at the varsity level was a step I wanted to take.”
But before that could happen, Oakes made the choice to move over from being the eighth grade boys coach to being the eighth grade girls coach. It happened two years ago with the help of some advice from Onweller who informed him of the opening at the eighth grade girls position. He did that for one season, then was the junior varsity girls basketball coach this past season under Onweller, and will now take his place.
“I was always happy at the eighth grade level, but obviously you want to work your way up,” said Oakes. “Talking to coach ‘O’, at some point you knew he was going to go, and we had talked that maybe that would be a good fit for me to go after it the day he did leave.”
Nevertheless, the two years spent as a part of Onweller’s staff were a great learning experience for the new coach.
“To work with not only Frank, but also with Gary (Langenderfer) and Tim Zedlitz. They were a huge help last year. Just seeing how they run their program,” said Oakes.
With the program now under his watch, look for some things to be the same and others to be different from the old regime. There will still be many of the same people surrounding the program which should also help ease the transition.
“Me and coach ‘O’ were always somewhat on the same page,” said Oakes. “Our philosophies on defense are somewhat the same. We run practices similar, not that we do it exactly (the same). So the girls that went through it last year, things aren’t going to change a whole lot.”
Oakes will even have Onweller close by, as the veteran coach has taken a position as Swanton’s eighth grade girls basketball coach. In addition, Langenderfer, a long time varsity assistant, will monitor the seventh grade girls team.
“It is a huge thing for our younger program,” said Oakes of the situation he is inheriting. “Me and (Onweller) are big into trying to really work on those fundamentals. That’s what those younger kids need to have.”
“I think it is important that players are fundamentally sound when they get to the high school level, and Gary and I will work hard to develop the junior high players so they will be ready to go for Eric,” added Onweller.
As to differences from how the program will be run under him, the new coach stated that each year will be a process.
“Every year I will go into it looking at the girls we got coming in and what adjustments (need to be made),” said Oakes. “I think it (philosophy) changes yearly for the coaches too.”
He will be a coach that demands a lot of his players, yet will always have their back.
“There is no doubt though I will ask a lot of them. I always have, boys or girls,” he said. “That being said, I am always going to be on their side. I will stick up for them because I know (how much work) they usually put into a practice.”
The varsity team will return four seniors this season, as well as many girls who played under Oakes either at the eighth grade level or last season on the JV team.
“We’ve got some younger ones that I have had for a couple of years that hopefully are ready to step into a varsity role as sophomores,” said Oakes. “We do have four seniors coming back. But there is going to be opportunities for those younger girls to step in as sophomores where you might not see that as much on the other teams.”
“We are excited. I think they can do it.”
It has been a long, winding road for Oakes, but he has finally reached the pinnacle of his career as a coach. This school year he will serve as both the head golf coach and girls basketball coach.
However, his success did not come without a wide range of support.
“I would like to thank Tim Zieroff for getting me into the program, basketball-wise,” said Oakes. “And obviously Frank, Gary Langenderfer and Tim Zedlitz for bringing me up last year and helping me out to get ready for this year. I have got a good group of supporters.”
“Probably the most (supporting) is my wife, since I am coaching two sports, I am not home a whole lot. With my regular job and coaching, she is a huge supporter of me doing this.”