NEW MANCHESTER - The Bears have turned to a familiar face to resurrect a struggling boys basketball program.
Former coach Dave Smith makes his return to the Oak Glen bench this season after leading the Bears for nine seasons from 1994-2004. During that time, Smith compiled 82 wins including a 24-1 record and a trip to the state tournament in his final season.
He replaces Vince Gilliam who spent the past seven seasons with Oak Glen.
Smith didn't voluntarily walk away from the position. In 2004, he had earned his administration degree from Fairmont State and accepted a position as an assistant principal at Weir Middle School.
"I've always wanted to coach," Smith said. "Along with teaching, it's always been something I've loved doing. In 2004, when (the Hancock County Board of Education) said administrators couldn't coach, I didn't want to relinquish my position."
The board rescinded its policy of prohibiting administrators from coaching in June of last year. Smith has been an assistant principal at Oak Glen Middle School since 2006.
A veteran of the coaching ranks at just 43 year of age, Smith has also coached football, baseball and soccer. During his time leading the boys basketball program, Smith had much success with the Bears.
"We had some good seasons for a while there," he said. "We couldn't have been any healthier at the time I left. That's one reason I hated to give it up. At that time, it was the best sport at the school other than wrestling."
Because of the success he experienced with the Bears, Smith said he believes he understands what it will take to turn the program around.
"We're basically starting all over again," he said. "I don't blame anyone. It's just that the interest level is not there. You have to have consistency in the program. It took a down turn and it's a shame that it did. We're going to try and rebuild that level of commitment that was there in the past."
Inheriting a Bears' squad that was 2-20 a year ago and has posted only five wins in the past three seasons, Smith said he knows the rebuilding process with take time.
"I put 10 years in previously and my goal is to get back to that level of success," he said. "I'm going to stick around because I want to be part of it again.
"I want our kids to be committed leaders of the school. I want them to create something that the community can be proud of."
With two sons last year's team - Trey and Brennan - Smith was able to get a good firsthand look at the Bears' disappointing 2011-12 campaign.
"I had the opportunity to see a lot of their games," Smith said. "What I saw was a lack of commitment. At times they played fairly well like when they were competitive against East Liverpool. When you only win a couple of games, you either have a complete lack of talent or a lack of commitment. They had some decent athletes, but they weren't committed to the hard work."
Smith said he has 19 players who came out this season. He is shooting for 30, a level where the program was during his previous stint as coach.
"This isn't going to happen overnight," Smith said. "We're fighting an uphill battle. But, now I understand what I want to achieve as a program. It can happen a lot quicker this time if I get commitment and participation from the kids. But even that is something I can't guarantee."
Smith said the team's strength this season will be its size underneath the basket. Kincaid (6-foot-5), McGraw (6-4) and Howell (6-3) will give the Bears a height advantage over most of their opponents.
"We have good size," Smith said. "The question is whether we are able to get them the ball. We have to try and take advantage of that and it's been our focus in practice. But again, if we can't get them the ball, it doesn't matter how tall we are."
According to Smith, the biggest area of concern on the court this year will be maintaining possession.
"We have a lot of deficits," he said. "Guard play and ball handling are at the top of the list. We have to try to have some offensive control of the basketball. Just keeping possession is going to be tough."
While Smith has set some ambitious goals for the program, he is also realistic about the timetable for the turnaround.
"They've only won five games in three years," he said. "Are we throwing in the towel? Absolutely not. On our first game December 7, we want to be as prepared as we can and we want to win. But, if we can win half our games, that's something that hasn't happened in their lifetime. Winning and losing isn't everything, but it's what you need to get to if you want to turn the program around."