Bryan White heard the whispers last summer when he arrived in Red Oak.

Tough place to win. ... Uphill climb. ... Work cut out.

After meeting with his basketball players, White found something refreshing: a group of guys excited to work and learn.

“I was real impressed with their attitude and their effort — and their talent,” the 43-year-old White said. “There were some kids that understood the game, and you could just tell there was a hunger and a desire to get better.”

For a program with just one winning season in at least the last 12 years, the turnaround has been striking. After Monday’s 73-41 win over Fremont-Mills, the Tigers are 11-6 and have won eight of nine games for the first time in at least 13 years.

Red Oak remains sixth in The World-Herald’s latest western Iowa ratings for Class 2-A/1-A schools. Sioux City East (4-A/3-A) and Nodaway Valley (2-A/1-A) are still atop their respective divisions. The ratings reflect play through Sunday.

A 1987 Tri-Center High School graduate, White played basketball at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. He had spent the past 14 years at Oskaloosa High School, heading the girls program for seven years before moving over to the boys for seven more, the last five as head coach.

He inherited a Red Oak team that went 5-17 last year and 23-87 (.209) over the past five. The first order of business was getting his kids to believe they could win. They were competitive in early-season games against Denison-Schleswig, Atlantic and Glenwood, but unable to find the winner’s circle.

“Early in the season, it seemed like a six- to eight-point deficit was like 20 to 30,” said White, who helped Tri-Center to a runner-up finish in the 1986 Class 1-A state tournament. “I think that’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen since game one. Now, no matter who we play and what situation we get ourselves in, the guys still believe that they can pull out the victory.”

White said a turning point was a 63-50 home win on Jan. 8 over Carroll Kuemper. That proved to his team that it could beat an upper-echelon Hawk-10 squad.

In their next game, the Tigers were even with state 3-A No. 4 Atlantic heading to the final period before losing by 10. They’ve followed with wins over Clarinda, Glenwood, Corner Conference tournament champion Villisca and Tri-Center.

Seniors Tanner Johnson and Pete Walker have led Red Oak’s resurgence.

A four-year starter, the 6-foot-3 Johnson averages a team-best 13.1 points to go with 5.7 rebounds. He presents a matchup problem for many teams with his ability to beat taller players off the dribble and use his quickness to score down low. White calls him the team’s most consistent player.

A standout football player, Johnson battled concussions earlier in his career, forcing him to miss his senior football season and the Tigers’ run to the playoffs.

“He remained part of the team and played a big role on the sideline, keeping guys sharp and in the game,” White said. “But it was still hard for him to sit out because he’s a competitor.”

The 6-2 Walker, a state tennis semifinalist last spring, averages 12.4 points and leads the team in rebounding (5.8), assists (5.5) and steals (2.4).

“Early on, he may have been trying to get everybody involved too much and didn’t look to score himself,” White said. “But he’s just a great floor general, and there have been times this year when he’s just flat-out taken games over.”

The other senior starter is 5-10 Jose Perez, who generally draws the defensive assignment on the opponent’s top scorer, whether he’s a 6-5 power forward or a 5-10 point guard.

“He’s physical and he’s quick and he loves the challenge of trying to stop the other team’s best player,” White said.

The other starters are 5-9 junior Jordan Nelson (8.9 ppg) and 6-4 junior Ryan Leininger (7.3 ppg). The top reserves are 5-8 sophomores Brendan Birt and Dalon King. Birt has made 19 of 33 (57.6 percent) from 3-point range.

Returning to the part of the state in which he was raised, White has “had a blast” matching wits with the Hawkeye Ten coaches. He knows Substate 8 of 2-A is loaded with more traditionally strong programs like IKM-Manning, Kuemper, Council Bluffs St. Albert and Treynor. But he feels his players will be extremely well-prepared for postseason play.

“There’s probably not a better 3-A type conference in the state to get us ready for 2-A district play,” White said. “That’s a big advantage.”

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