Russia and Jackson Center share the top spot in the County boys basketball standings as the second round begins play this week.
The Raiders are rolling along at 10-2 with new head coach Spencer Cordonnier, and are smothering teams with their defense. That defense will get a test Friday night on the road at Fairlawn in a rematch of a 56-48 Raider win at Russia to open the season.
The Tigers, meanwhile, bounced back Tuesday from their first loss of the season Saturday against Anna with a 67-39 win at Lehman. The loss dropped them into a first-p-lace tie with Russia, and now they turn their attention to the Fort Loramie Redskins, who come to town Friday and will be trying to get back on track after dropping four of their last five.
And in the third County game of the night, the resurgent Anna Rockets travel to face the Botkins Trojans. Anna saw its five-game winning streak snapped at the tough Versailles Holiday Tournament, but came back to upset Jackson Center on Saturday and get back in the league race at 4-2.
Botkins will be looking to bounce back from a 30-point loss to Russia in its last outing.
Houston has the bye this week and won’t see action until Saturday at home against Lehman.
Also Saturday, Jackson visits New Knoxville, Fort Loramie hosts Minster and Anna is home against St. Henry.
The Jets are coming off a productive holiday season that saw them win three in a row to head into the new year with quite a bit of momentum.
They followed up a hard-fought 68-60 win over Botkins three days before Christmas with a championship in the Parkway Holiday Tournament after Christmas. They defeated a strong Delphos Jefferson team (7-3) in the semifinals.
“I feel like we’re starting to get better,” said head coach Justin Tidwell.
Tidwell’s depth got better this week with the addition of Sidney transfer Keshon Johnson, a six-foot guard. He had to sit out the first 11 games because of the transfer rule, but he’s been practicing with the team since day one.
“He’s a good scorer, and he’s good with the ball,” said Tidwell. “I think he’ll help us on offense, and defensively, he can apply great ball pressure. I think it will be a smooth transition because he’s been with us since from the start. So he’s been in the mix.”
Friday marks the start of the second round of County play, and the Jets get the 10-2 Russia Raiders Friday at home. When the two met in the season opener at Russia, the Raiders won 56-48.
“Right now, Russia is like a buzzsaw,” Tidwell said. “I saw them against Botkins and they were very aggressive at both ends of the floor. One through eight or nine, they’re very good. We have to play our game and not let them dictate the pace. And we have to take care of the ball.”
The Raiders are allowing just 40 points per game so far.
The Wildcats have lost four in a row, but are coming off a game that saw an impressive comeback in a 51-45 loss to Fort Loramie.
The Wildcats trailed by 15 with just over three minutes remaining, but were within 47-43 with 23 seconds left and had possession of the ball.
“I guess it says a lot about the kids, but I think it also says a lot about the way we played over the first three quarters,” said Houston coach John Willoughby. “Our shooters aren’t getting ready to shoot. They’re catching the ball and then getting ready, so we’re missing a lot of opportunities for open shots. Earlier in the year, we were getting enough attempts, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re not shooting when we’re open because we’re not ready.”
Willoughby said he called a timeout Saturday at Loramie and brought up that very point, and when the Wildcats returned to the floor, they drained three straight three-pointers.
“We’re being competitive, and now that we are, I’m looking to take the next step and do what we need to do to win some games,” Willoughby added. “Our defense is not where it was and we have to get back to playing with more purpose and desire.”
The Wildcats are off Friday night, then host 2-6 Lehman Saturday in non-league action.
“We need to be ready for their zones,” said Willoughby. “We haven’t seen many of those this year, so our number one concern is that we get the shots and not get sloppy with the ball.”
The defensive-minded Raiders must have taken it personally when Covington scored 64 points in Russia’s Piqua Holiday Tournament win over the Buccs. Since that game, the Raiders have allowed 36, 28 and 35 points to lower their overall defensive average to just 40.3 per game. And the number of teams who have failed to reach the 40-point figure against them is now up to six.
On Tuesday, the Raiders trailed Ansonia 11-6 after one quarter, then allowed the Tigers only 24 points over the final three periods.
“The kids are continuing to improve,” said Cordonnier. “This is a senior-laden team and for those guys, this is it. They’ve waited for their chance and they’re not leaving anything out on the floor, night in and night out. And the underclassmen want to send these guys out with a successful season.”
The Raiders will be tested Friday night with a key County game at Fairlawn, where the Jets appear to be on a roll themselves with three straight wins, including the Parkway Holiday Tournament championship.
When the teams played the first time around, the Raiders did a good job on high-scoring Fairlawn junior Nathan Lessing. He finished with 16, but nine of those came in the final period. And for the Raiders, Josh York dominated inside and scored 29 points.
“Lessing is still the focal point,” Cordonnier said. “No matter who Fairlawn plays, he’s always the one teams focus on. If you do a good job on him, your chances are good. But they have some other kids that can put it in the hole, so that makes them a dangerous team.
“I think we’re both two completely different teams this time around,” he added. “The first time around, we had to depend heavily on Josh (York). Now we’ve found some other scoring and our offense is much, much better. So it should be a great game.”
The Tigers rebounded from their first loss to handle Lehman on Tuesday, and even though it’s a young Lehman team that is a work in progress, head JC coach Scott Elchert was pleased with his team’s play.
“I was happy because I felt like we got back to being scrappy and being willing to do a lot of little things,” he said. “Whether it be diving for a loose ball or checking out. Those were things I felt like we had abandoned the last couple weeks.”
The first loss came Saturday in league play at Anna, and Elchert used a boxing analogy to explain the loss.
“As I assessed that loss, first of all Anna is no doubt an extremely talented and athletic team,” he said. “And they came out with a true fighter’s mentality and hit us in the face. We sustained most of those blows, but they just kept hitting us. And I felt toward the end of the third quarter, we lost our composure at both ends of the floor and tried to get it all back at once.”
Now the second round of county play begins and the Tigers certainly still have designs on another league title. That quest begins again Friday at home against the Fort Loramie Redskins.
“We finished 5-1 in the first round and every one of our league games was a fight,” Elchert said. “And the kids understand that as we prepare. Fort Loramie gave us everything we wanted in the second half over there, and it’s a team with youth and inexperience that is going to continue to grow. They have solid guard play with (Drew) Wehrman, (Dillon) Braun and (Tanner) Rosengarten. They are all capable of putting points on the board. And (Tyler) Siegel is a force inside.”
The Tigers are led by their high-scoring duo of Drew Sosby and Brady Wildermuth, and Elchert said there are others making big contributions.
“Bryce Sosby, maybe his value doesn’t show up in the boxscore, but he’s doing a lot of things for us,” he said. “And Ethan Zorn has been good all season.”
The Trojans are in a bit of a slide, having dropped four of their last five, and even though the losses have come to good teams, head coach Brett Meyer said a win would be nice to get his team back on track.
“We need to finish around the basket a little better,” Meyer said. “We need to do a better job on the five-foot-and-in shot.”
The Trojans had a good win on the road over the Minster Wildcats on Dec. 28, but followed that up with a 30-point loss at Russia. Though Meyer gave the Raiders all the credit, there were extenuating circumstances that night.
Erik Greve, a key starter at guard for the Trojans, was forced to sit out the Russia game because of a concussion. Meyer said he’s “50-50” for Friday night.
“He didn’t even dress for Saturday’s game,” said Meyer. “It happened last Friday in the afternoon and it wasn’t basketball related. He was helping some other people. He had a headache Saturday and was looked at by our trainer, and is now following the concussion protocol we have here at school. We didn’t find out until Saturday afternoon at 2:00 that he wouldn’t be able to go Saturday night, so that didn’t give us much time to adjust. Hopefully he can go through a full practice (today) and be ready, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
The Trojans face a tough test Friday at home against the Anna Rockets in a renewal of their backyard rivalry. It also adds to what has been a hectic schedule for the Trojans — it will be their 11th game since Dec. 4.
“The first thing we have to do is make sure to box them out and not let them get close to the basket,” said Meyer. “That will be a huge goal. And the second thing is we have to handle their pressure. I thought the first time we played them (68-62 loss), we did a good job with that.”
The Redskins are also in a bit of a slide, having dropped four of their last five games to fall below the .500 mark.
The latest was a 70-46 loss at Versailles Tuesday night that left head coach Corey Britton disappointed.
“I don’t know if it was because it was a Tuesday night, but we didn’t play as hard as I’d like,” he said. “But we’re learning, and it was a good experience for us. We feel like we’ve let at least three games slip through our fingers. We just have to stay after it. I think we’re good enough to get where we want to go.”
He said the biggest things the Redskins need is consistency on offense. “We just need to get five guys in a flow every night. One night it will be two guys here and the next night maybe three guys. We need to get them all in a flow. But we’ve had our chances against a lot of teams and were in all those games. If we finish them, we’re 7-4 or 8-3, but we’re not.”
A good example was the season opener against Jackson Center. The Redskins fell behind 27-10 at halftime, but scxored 33 points in the second half and had that lead down to five at one point.
This time, the game is at Jackson.
“Going over there is always tough,” he said. “It’s probably going to be a sellout and it will be a great challenge for us. We have to learn to step up to that. We’re looking forward to competing and getting better.”
The Rockets didn’t win either night in the Versailles Holiday Tournament, but it’s almost like they did, thanks to how well they competed on opening night against Versailles — an overtime loss.
Head Anna coach Nate Barhorst was concerned about a stretch of non-league road games at the end of the December. But that stretch started off with a win over Marion Local, and was followed by the games at Versailles.
“I told the kids afterwards, this helps us out,” Barhorst said of the holiday tournament. “If anything, it helps us prepare for what’s down the road.”
And he was right. In Anna’s next outing, on Saturday night, the Rockets handed Jackson Center its only loss to date, 54-43, to go to 7-4.
“I think the key has been our communication,” said Barhorst. “And our intensity on defense has been excellent. We’re playing together and we’re playing fluid ball right now. Communication is a huge thing we’ve stressed, and the kids are buying into it.”
The Rockets had their hands full at home with Botkins on opening night, winning 68-62, and now the scene shifts a few miles to the north to the Trojans’ gym Friday.
“It’s a backyard rivalry and you can’t look past this game,” said Barhorst. “With (Chad) Bergman inside, we have to be ready because he hurt us last time (23 points). We have to do a better job on him, and we have to keep them out of our gut. They were able to penetrate our defense too much last time.”
Reach Ken Barhorst at 937-538-4818