The Springfield Broncos were a juggernaut back in the mid-2000s, becoming the first team to win three consecutive titles in the Western Ohio Junior Football Conference.
That three-peat for the Pee Wee Football program based in a suburb northeast of Dayton was in jeopardy of being derailed by an injury to Tyree Kinnel in a semifinal game. These days, Kinnel is the starting free safety for the Michigan Wolverines; back then, he was a two-way standout for the Broncos.
As Springfield coach Travis Trice Sr. helped his star running back/linebacker off the field, he couldn’t help but notice the second-oldest of his three sons had things under control in the huddle. D’Mitrik Trice was doing exactly what a quarterback should do: making sure the other third-graders on the team stopped worrying about losing Kinnel and got their heads back in the game.
“I’ve got us,” he told them.
It’s a proud-father moment that sticks with Travis Trice Sr. more than a decade later, an anecdote at his disposal when someone asks about his son’s leadership qualities.
There are a lot of questions along those lines these days as D’Mitrik Trice steps into a bigger role on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. Not only is Trice expected to be the starting point guard, he’s the third most-experienced player on the roster in terms of minutes.
Being a leader has always been something Trice has embraced. Even last season, as a freshman in a lineup loaded with seniors, Trice impressed teammates with his willingness to communicate on and off the court.
“I’ve never seen him not be a leader,” UW junior forward Alex Illikainen said. “Even when he was behind Bronson (Koenig) and he was the young guy, when he was out on the court he was the leader.”
But this is different, and Trice knows it.
There’s a reason Trice began mentally preparing for this moment before the 2016-17 season had even ended. As he looked around the locker room last March at Madison Square Garden, where the Badgers were preparing for a Sweet 16 game against Florida, Trice admitted one of his primary objectives in the offseason would be to sharpen his leadership skills.
A day later, the Badgers’ season ended with an 84-83 overtime loss to Florida, the final chapter for an impressive senior class that included Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown. Later in the spring, guard Jordan Hill decided to leave the program as a graduate transfer.
That leaves Aaron Moesch as the only senior on the roster. Junior center Ethan Happ, the Badgers’ only returning starter and by far the most experienced player on the roster, will be counted on to lead as well.
But as the team’s point guard, a lot will fall on Trice’s shoulders.
“Just being more vocal has been the biggest thing for me,” Trice said, “and trying to do anything I can to establish that spot on the team.”
In many ways, Trice has been taking a course on leadership his whole life.
His father played two years each at Purdue and Butler and coached his sons in basketball at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. Car rides home each night were spent dissecting what went right and what went wrong in practices or games.
Travis Trice II, who went on to play at Michigan State, was a lead-by-example type. Next in line was D’Mitrik, who was more of a natural leader.
It showed that day with the Springfield Broncos and it only grew from there. D’Mitrik was a pitcher in baseball, a point guard in basketball and a quarterback in football who went 25-3 as a two-year starter at Wayne.
Father and son have had long talks during the offseason about how D’Mitrik’s role is changing this season.
“Last year, he went into a situation on a team that had a lot of experience, a lot of veterans, a lot of guys who had played a lot of basketball,” Travis Sr. said. “And one of the things was to see where is there something missing and be able to lead. I think he did a great job of that. He went in and he gained the trust of those seniors and more importantly gained the trust of his coaches by the way he approached every day.
“There’s a certain element of leadership that comes with that, it just wasn’t as vocal as it will be now. The biggest thing we talked about is it has to be a full-fledged vocal leadership. You have to take a different approach: This is your team, the things that happen with this team, good or bad, is going to fall on how you lead. It’s a totally different perspective.”
One of the things Trice’s teammates appreciate about him is how cheery demeanor. His Twitter timeline is filled with short messages dripping with positivity.
“You don’t want someone who’s going to be negative, saying ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t,’ ” UW junior guard Brevin Pritzl said. “You want somebody saying, ‘You can, and I know you will.’ ”
Still, Trice knows there will be times when he has to deliver tough love on or off the court. It’s part of the territory with being a point guard.
“As a leader,” he said, “you have to have a little bit of that grit to you that if somebody’s stepping out of line, you have to put them in their place.”
Mixed in with Trice’s positive quotes on Twitter was one he sent on Sept. 27 that wasn’t nearly as upbeat: “Been doubted my whole life,” he said, “ain’t nothing changed.”
It was in reference to a comment Trice had seen on another social-media platform. Essentially, the person said he wasn’t sold on Trice as a starting point guard.
It’s a big step for Trice, to be sure. He appeared in all 37 games last season, making two starts when Koenig was injured, and averaged 5.6 points, 1.7 assists and 18.3 minutes.
The other major project during Trice’s offseason was making enhancements to his game. When he returned home between the end of the spring semester and the start of UW’s summer session, Trice worked out daily with his brothers under the watch of their father and family friend Isaiah Williams.
“There are a lot of tools in D’Mitrik’s arsenal that he hasn’t unleashed yet,” Williams said, “and hopefully this will be the year people see some of those tools.”
Williams said the focus with D’Mitrik was “finding avenues and ways to be more of a scoring threat.”
The sessions, which lasted anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes without a wasted second in between, were designed to put the Trice brothers in uncomfortable situations.
“It’s competitive,” said Williams, who was an assistant coach at Wayne under Trice Sr. and trains other players in the area. “They challenge each other to be great. They really go at one another.”
Trice also has been working with UW assistant coach Dean Oliver, who played point guard in the Big Ten at Iowa, on ways to add to his game.
Trice had a tendency to go to his dominant right hand too often last season. Badgers coach Greg Gard thought Trice was predictable in another way: more often than not, he’d settle for pull-up jumpers after coming off screens.
Oliver and Trice have been working on attacking the basket and finishing with either hand. Trice also is trying to master a floater he can use when he encounters long-armed defenders in the paint.
“He has a great head on his shoulders,” Oliver said. “He’s making the right sacrifices to be a great player and he wants it really bad. He’s probably one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever seen, where you tell him one thing and immediately the next practice he’s already doing it.”
How much Trice raises his game and makes others around him better with his leadership skills will help determine whether UW, picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten this season, can make its critics look silly.
“I just love to prove people wrong,” Trice said. “They get this kind of view of how I am and how I play and then I go out and show them something different and make them believers. I’m definitely looking forward to doing that this year, not only with me but with this team.”