Western Reserve boys basketball coach joked about the size and age of venues when discussing his Roughriders and the gym at South Central High School, which hosts the biggest Firelands Conference game of the season on Friday in Greenwich.
“We held serve at our place (51-43 win on Jan. 4), and in my opinion, all the pressure in the world is on them,” Sheldon said of Friday’s game between the Roughriders (13-4, 12-0) and Trojans (16-3, 11-1).
A Western Reserve win gives the ‘Riders the FC title outright, while a South Central victory forces a tie atop the standings with one league game remaining next week for each team.
The two oldest gyms in the conference are also home to the two winningest programs in FC history in terms of league championships (13 each). Now, a 14th title for both programs with rosters loaded with underclassmen is still a real possibility.
“They were the preseason favorite, they’ve got the FC Player of the Year and District 6 Player of the Year … they have to win,” Sheldon said of the Trojans and standout guard Simon Blair.
“And so the thing I like about it, this allows our guys to go out and enjoy it and have fun,” Sheldon said. “One thing I know about my kids through two-plus days so far this week, they are feeling pretty good and loose, as they should be right now.”
As for the venues and atmosphere, South Central coach Brett Seidel is looking forward to having Friday’s game at home.
“I remember when we got up there (at Collins) for the first game and we had people in the stands already when the bus arrived,” Seidel said. “Our community travels really well and have been supportive of program, and I’d imagine there will be a lot of support there on Friday.
“Throw in the fact we also have a small gym and confines with the crowd right on top of you, and it should be electric,” he added. “It was still packed last year’s game during week and very loud. That’s what these kids have worked hard for.”
In the loss in Collins, the Trojans were outscored 17-7 in the third quarter of a game it led 30-28 at halftime.
Blair, who averages 21.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.2 steals per game, picked up his third foul in the third quarter and had to sit for five-plus minutes when the ‘Riders made their run.
He was soon joined on the bench by David Lamoreaux, who averages 14.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest.
Once Western grabbed the eight-point lead, it took the air out of the ball as each team scored just six points in the fourth quarter. The Trojans struggled to run their offense at the methodical pace.
“They both sat for a combined four-plus minutes in that stretch, and if you take them both off the floor, that obviously changes us,” Seidel said. “That’s no knock on our surrounding cast, but we definitely need them to stay on floor.
“Sure, the past always goes through your mind, and you try and learn from it,” he added. “If that situation comes about again, hopefully we’ll execute better.”
Like most who face the Trojans — ranked No. 11 in this week’s Associated Press Division IV state poll — Sheldon freely admits it comes down to defending Blair and Lamoreaux.
However, as he looked back on the first meeting, what stood out more was limiting the aforementioned supporting cast. That includes players such as Isaiah Seidel (8.5 points, 6.7 rebounds), Alex Holland (6.9 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Even Legg (5.0 points).
“The key for us was those two had their moments, but weren’t able to sustain it,” Sheldon said. “They have four pretty good role players that you really have to … as much as those two get a lot of attention, you can’t lose sight of those other four. We did outstanding job of that the first time.
“But when you look at the first time, not only did we control tempo to end the game, but we were the team in transition that was really efficient,” he added. ”As much as people remember that fourth quarter, we were really good in transition at both ends of the floor.”
Western is led by sharpshooter Luke Rowlinson, who had four 3-pointers and a game-high 20 points in the first meeting. He averages 13.8 points per game, including three 3s per contest. Also for the ‘Riders, John Skrada averages 11.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, while JJ Weisenberger adds 10.2 points, 3.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Aiden Markley contributes 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
As a team, Western averages 6-of-23 shooting from the the 3-point line.
“You have to guard the three-point line — and beyond,” Seidel said. “Because they do shoot it and have the range to make them from deep. But the thing that makes them difficult to defend is they can also put the ball on the floor.
“They can post you up and get it to where they want it to with the dribble,” he added. “They are really skilled, but not just as shooters only.”
Seidel also believes several of his players have grown since the loss five-plus weeks ago. With a chance to at least potentially share the FC with Western for a second straight year, they will have to be ready on Friday.
“I don’t think that we have particularly shot it as well as we can shoot it, but overall we’ve gotten better defensively,” he said.” At the same time, I know Western has as well. They’ve gotten better, as well as everyone should that is trying to play for something. But I think we’ve got some kids who have grown up a lot, and we’re looking forward to Friday.”