Oxton builds program into perennial contender, growing basketball in Lakeville

Lakeville North coach John Oxton has brought LNHS to two state title games, winning one, and recently added a 500th victory to his resume.

Oxton+instructs+his+players+during+a+timeout+of+the+game+that+became+his+500th+victory.+Photo+by+Sue+Nelson

Oxton instructs his players during a timeout of the game that became his 500th victory. Photo by Sue Nelson

John Oxton is seldom more competitive than when he’s shooting for fun in practice.

While his players participate in drills, Oxton occasionally picks up a basketball and shoots free-throws and two and three-pointers. He strives to make every basket, and becomes visibly frustrated when he misses.

But it’s rare he becomes discouraged because his misses are scarce.

Lakeville North alumnus J.P. Macura, who currently plays for Xavier, said he couldn’t believe it when Oxton missed less than 10 shots while shooting about 100 baskets during practice.

“Watching him shoot was pretty amazing,” Macura said. “If he played at Lakeville North on the varsity team, I think he would be the best shooter Lakeville North ever had. He would be lights out.”

Oxton won’t ever be a dominant scorer for Lakeville North, but he’s made an even more significant impact as a coach. His Lakeville/Lakeville North resume includes a state championship, a second place finish and the recent addition of a 500th victory with the Panthers’ defeat of Shakopee on Feb. 9.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, is turning Lakeville North, which hopes to make a state trip for a fifth consecutive winter, into an annual contender and a school known for its basketball.

When Oxton took the job in 1990, this was far from the case. People throughout Minnesota rarely used “Lakeville” and “basketball” in the same sentence.

“When I got to Lakeville, it was a flat out a football town,” he said. “(No other teams) had anything going.”

Photo by Sue Nelson
Photo by Sue Nelson

To make a big change in the Lakeville athletic culture, Oxton had to start small. Drew Stewart, a senior captain on the 2015-2016 team, said Oxton’s focus on the little things, such as players finishing sprints and getting extra dribbles and shots in, has made the difference.

“A lot of coaches overlook the little things, but he makes it a point to do the little things,” Stewart said.

What many coaches in Minnesota haven’t overlooked is Oxton’s attention to detail.

“I think his teams are so strong from year to year because they are so fundamentally sound,” Apple Valley coach Zach Goring said. “He understands the game at very high level, and because of that, he puts his teams in situations where they can be successful.”

Although Oxton stays true to the fundamentals, his ability to adapt to the changes of high school basketball has kept him and Lakeville North relevant.

One of the biggest changes Oxton has made is his relationship with AAU basketball, which is played during the high school basketball offseason. Players are asked by the individual teams to play for them based on how well they play with their school teams, but some players try out as well.

Oxton would not involve himself much with AAU basketball 10-15 years ago. Now, however, Oxton suggests to his players what they should do in the summer, and which AAU teams they may want to play for.

He understands the game at very high level, and because of that, he puts his teams in situations where they can be successful.”

— Zach Goring, coach at rival Apple Valley

Lakeville North assistant coach Mark Haddorff said Oxton’s ability to adapt over his 26 years with the Panthers has been vital in the program’s continued success.

“If you try to be the same all the way through, time is going to pass you by,” said Haddorff, who has coached with Oxton for 17 years.

What hasn’t changed is what he demands of his players. Stewart said Oxton demands “everything out of you,” which Stewart found out his freshman year. Stewart might have only been a freshman when he began playing on the varsity squad, but Oxton treated him as if he were a senior captain.

Stewart explained that how Oxton dealt with him epitomizes the kind of coach and person Oxton is.

“I would get my butt kicked, but when I was down on the ground, he would help me up,” Stewart said. “Then he would say, ‘I know you’ve got more in you.‘”

This expectation level, which stems from the competitiveness Oxton displays when he shoots during practice, consistently keeps the Panthers in contention in Class 4A boys’ basketball.

“I’m very competitive in anything I do, maybe even to a fault,” Oxton said. “I think that is one thing that rubs off on our players: they realize they are expected to play really hard—harder than most people.”

 

Montana man

A chance meeting at a youth basketball camp eventually brought Oxton from Gardiner, Montana to Lakeville, Minnesota.

Oxton, who coached sophomore football and basketball for his alma mater, Fargo North High School, during his college years at North Dakota State University, got his first head coaching job at 22 in Wilsall, Montana. Not long after, he took the head job at Gardiner, where his 1988-1989 team went 26-0 and won a Class C state championship.

Montana State University recruited one of Oxton’s players at Gardiner, and after getting to know the Bobcats’ head coach Stu Starner, Oxton began to help out at the Bobcat youth basketball camp in the summer.

Harry McLenighan, the activities director at Lakeville High School at the time, also coached at the camp as he was a good friend of Starner, dating back to Starner’s coaching days at Richfield High School in the 60s and 70s.

He and Oxton worked together at the camp, and McLenighan quickly became impressed with him.

He wasn’t searching for a coach for the Panthers when he first met Oxton, but McLenighan knew if he ever needed to find a coach, he would see if Oxton was interested.

“You want to know who you trust, who you admire and who has it,” McLenighan said. “I immediately knew John had it.”

Eventually, the time came for McLenighan to hire a coach. He coached the LHS basketball team while performing his athletic director duties, but he decided he couldn’t do both. McLenighan encouraged Oxton to apply, and the committee members recommended Oxton as their choice for Lakeville’s next coach after the interview process.

“Because I knew the kind of person he was as well as the kind of coach he was, it was pretty easy for me to walk to the (school) board and recommend him,” McLenighan said.

Now, looking back 26 years later, it’s even more impressive the young coach from Montana got the job.

I immediately knew John had it.”

— Harry McLenighan, former LHS A.D.

Among the finalists for the job were in-house candidates Andy Berkvam and Greg Miller, and based on each of their career success to-date, McLenighan couldn’t have made a bad decision either way. Berkvam was then asked to coach the Lakeville girls’ team, which he would eventually win 419 games and a state championship with. Miller stayed with the boys’ program when Oxton came, but he moved on shortly after to become a head coach. He recently earned his 300th career victory while coaching the Armstrong team–not too bad of a group of young coaches to select from.

Some people in the community, including Miller, questioned the hiring of Oxton, though, especially when McLenighan said Oxton would be his mentor.

“I meet him, and he looks as if he is about 15-years old, and I thought, this guy is going to be my mentor?” Miller said.

Miller said he swallowed his pride, however, and coached under Oxton for five years. Miller, who remains great friends with Oxton to this day, quickly realized why McLenighan hired Oxton.

“I could tell right away he was a brilliant coach,” Miller said.

McLenighan did not expect Oxton to have the success he’s had, but he isn’t surprised by it.

“I thought he would be (extremely successful) because one thing that I saw in him was when he defined himself, coach and teacher were part of the definition,” McLenighan said.

 

Character coach

A physical education teacher by day and a coach by night, Oxton has surrounded himself with athletics, allowing him to remain a kid even with gray hairs atop his head and a grandchild on the way in March.

“(No one) ever said, ‘you’re done playing now, and you have to go on to real life’,” Oxton said. “I’ve never gone on to real life. I still get to play games, which is amazing to me.”

This youthful outlook on life has translated to his coaching.

Oxton always preaches that his players play with energy, which has been a difference-maker for Macura, who has shined in only his sophomore year at Xavier.

“I see myself at Xavier as one of the energy guys, grabbing offensive rebounds, diving on the floor, taking some charges,” Macura said.

Photo by Sue Nelson
Photo by Sue Nelson

Oxton’s ability to provide mentorship and coaching also made a difference for Macura on and off the court.

In his life dating up until his first few years of high school, Macura struggled to keep a level head, both in and outside of basketball. Macura said he was super competitive and he couldn’t lose in anything. And when he lost, Macura screamed, cried, yelled and would blame others.

Oxton wouldn’t tolerate this, however.

Whenever Macura showcased his anger by throwing a ball or swearing, Oxton issued a punishment. Many times, Macura had to do treds, which consisted of him putting his hands on the ground and swinging his legs to his hands for about a minute.

Needless to say, Macura did his best to avoid Oxton’s punishments. The effect of these punishment’s improved Macura from a physical standpoint, but they changed him as a person even more.

“They made me realize I am not bigger than anyone else on the team,” Macura said. “We all need each other, and no one can (afford) to act out of place.”

Macura is grateful to Oxton for helping him find a way to keep his emotions in-check, which is something Macura will likely need to do throughout his life.

Oxton prioritizes helping his athletes become better people over better basketball players, teaching them life skills, such as a strong work ethic and discipline.

“I hope they take those lessons throughout their life and teach them to their own kids or it helps them in their marriage or job,” Oxton said.

His focus on growing the person ahead of the player has helped Oxton make an impact as a teacher, a coach and a mentor. He sees his 500 victories and two state championships as just a byproduct of this focus.

“We are very blessed as a community to have John Oxton as a coach,” Stewart said. “He is a great coach on the court, and off the court, he is just as big of a help.”