Take one good look at Oak Grove senior Tate Ryder away from the basketball court, and it’s hard to see what he’s capable of doing. But, get the 6-foot guard on the hardwood, and he plays with fiery passion with the capabilities of scoring 20 points a night.
“He really wasn’t a tough basketball player,” Oak Grove coach LaRon Brumfield said of Ryder when he was first moved up to the varsity team as a freshman. “He’s always been able to shoot, he’s always been able to handle the ball, but he never was just a tough basketball player.
“I’ve been telling him for years, ‘Tate, I need you to get in there and get your nose bloody.’”
Ryder took that message to heart. After a few years of growing into a physical player, Brumfield loved what he said at this year’s Rumble in the South event, where Ryder earned Most Valuable Player honors after the Warriors defeated Murrah by 27 points.
To go along with Ryder’s 25 points, he also walked away with a black eye. Physical play like that is what Brumfield wanted to see to see from his guard, because Ryder didn’t play like that as a younger player.
“He used to talk to me, like yell at me and get in my face, and I would tear up,” Ryder said. “I’ve definitely come a long way. He’s always told me that I need to get my nose in there.”
The very next night in a three-point win over Hattiesburg, sporting his mark of physicality on his eye, Ryder played with intensity against the Warriors’ cross-town rival. He talked and clapped his hands at Tigers players after made shots, and even got a technical for pushing a Hattiesburg player after a fast break layup.
Ryder didn’t think he deserved the technical, though.
When the senior was moved up to the varsity, the Warriors won just seven games. Now in his last season in the black and gold, he’s led Oak Grove to the first 20-win season under Brumfield. The Warriors aren’t done yet either. They’ll play South Jones to close out the season Thursday, then they’ll take part in the Region 5-6A tournament next week in Meridian.
The Warriors finished the region schedule with a 3-3 mark, sweeping George County, splitting with Petal and losing two games to a two-loss Meridian team. Oak Grove (21-5) lost to the Wildcats by 13 points in the first meeting, which was the final game of a three-game losing streak, then it lost by a buzzer-beater the second time the two met.
The three-game losing streak in January came after a 15-1 start to the season, too. The Warriors were rolling until Petal beat them by seven, then Gulfport rolled the Warriors by 20 the very next day. Three days later, Meridian handed them the 13-point loss before Oak Grove got back on track the second time against Petal.
“I thought we played well over at Petal, but we just didn’t make the plays down the stretch,” Brumfield said. “Then we go to play Gulfport the next day and I think we were just emotionally drained. We missed probably 14 lay-ups and had about 28 turnovers. It’s almost like the guys were in Pascagoula physically, but mentally we were still in Hattiesburg or still in Petal.”
When Oak Grove arrived back in Hattiesburg after the Gulfport loss in Pascagoula, Ryder went straight to the gym for a late night shooting session.
“I think we just had a rough three games, just a hard three games,” Ryder said. “The Gulfport game was after that big Petal game, so we were tired, I guess. That’s not really an excuse, but it was just a rough three games.”
Ryder isn’t the only shooter on the team, though. At times, the Warriors could have five guards on the floor playing against a team that’s noticeably taller and longer. Senior Brandon Tilley, junior Blake Roberts, and sophomores Dylan Brumfield and Jay Barnes have all had big games this season, and Brumfield is adamant that his players can take over a game.
But, the size disadvantage against teams like Meridian should be an issue, right? With 21 wins and only five losses, it hasn’t hurt the Warriors as much as Mississippi high school basketball fans would think. With five guards on the floor, it forces an opponent’s post player to come out and guard the smaller, quicker play, too. If he leaves the shooter open, Oak Grove has plenty of players who can knock down shots. There are so many more possibilities on the offensive end as well.
“We get to use our quickness,” Brumfield said of the smaller lineup. “Hurts us on the glass a lot, but we’re able to do a lot more things with a small lineup than you can do sometimes with a big post player. A lot of coaches call and say, ‘I want to know how you do (play with five guards).’ It’s not a secret. I just put the five guards out there and go play.
Playing with a smaller lineup isn’t new for Brumfield. I may be new for Oak Grove, but while he played for Steve Knight at William Carey, the tactic wasn’t uncommon.
“I played in that kind of system, so I know the benefits,” Brumfield said. “You can have fun playing smaller players, but you just have to focus in when it comes to rebounding and playing defense.”