The Western Reserve senior point guard didn’t look around him and wonder where the points would come from — or how the Roughriders were going to put together a strong season.
There was never any doubt.
“There was never a point where I didn’t think we couldn’t win the league title,” Smith said following Friday’s 56-54 win at St. Paul. “I didn’t think we had any less of a chance, because I love the players we have.”
A year ago, the Roughriders are 15-9 overall, and 11-3 in the Firelands Conference. Seven of those nine losses were by single digits — including all three FC losses. If they had gotten just one of those back, the ’Riders are co-FC champions.
Coming off back-to-back district title game losses to Edison, it was apparent Western was going to enter the season with high expectations. But in a four-month span in the offseason, two likely starters transferred out on the heels of two starters graduating.
Suddenly, it was just Smith, Aiden Markley and Brayden Hood returning with any varsity experience.
But entering Friday’s game at South Central, Western is 7-3 overall and 5-0 in the FC with key one-possession wins over New London (54-51) and St. Paul (56-54). A win over the Trojans would put the ’Riders up at least two games in the standings over six of the other seven FC teams.
Western was hanging on by a thread in the final minute of the win at St. Paul last Friday. It had coughed up a 10-point lead in under two minutes, and the Flyers had two 3-pointers rim in and out.
But Smith believes the name across the front of the jersey helped win that game. A program win by a school that has averaged 16 wins per season over the past 15 years.
“We have a lot of pride in our school, and a lot of pride in our program that has won a lot of games over the years,” Smith said. “That’s why we won.”
But Friday’s win was also an example of how deep things are running in Collins. Markley had 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting and made eight 3-pointers. But senior Gavin Braden grabbed a rebound off the final St. Paul miss with 10.5 seconds left.
He split the free throws — but that was enough. It gave his team a 56-52 lead, all but sealing the win.
Braden, Pierce Livermore and Matt Perkins are three seniors who played junior varsity last season as juniors.
“It’s hard as a junior to play JV, but those three for their commitment, dedication and determination is paying off,” Western coach Chris Sheldon said. “Pierce had his best game of the season (Friday) by far. But Gavin and Perkins, all 5-foot-9 and 6-2 of them, they hold (Chris) Ruffing to seven points. And that’s just heart.
“We always say grit and determination can beat talent, and that’s sort of what our motto has been right now” he added. “This group because of our seniors — our younger guys are feeding off of that and it’s allowing them to just play.”
When circumstances saw two players transfer out of the school district, Smith said the team had no choice but to bunker down — and they’ve done that.
“They left, and that was their decision, and that’s fine,” he said. “It made us closer. We had to come together, and whoever is with us is with us, and whoever isn’t here, that’s fine. We work hard to go out and give our best with the group we have.”
Sheldon didn’t hesitate when asked why his team is 5-0 in the FC — and alone in first place as of now.
“It starts with our leader, Dale Smith, the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” he said. “He leads this team, make no mistake. A 5-9 point guard on his best day, he scores 11 points, nine rebounds and has six assists (on Friday). You tell me a point guard in the area that does that and makes his team better at both end of the floor.”
This is nothing new. Good programs lose players to graduation — and sometimes other circumstances — every single year. But there are some seasons where you look at a team and say ‘just bridge the gap’ and keep things respectable moving forward.
That was a reasonable expectation this winter in Collins. However, it has also been well-documented the FC boys race didn’t feature a ‘runaway’ favorite, either.
But with plenty of basketball to be played over the next two months, the ’Riders have staked their claim to season-long contention.
“Nothing was won (Friday), and we have to continue to work on our defense,” Smith said. “Sometimes when we’re not doing well and not focused enough.
“We work hard in practice everyday, and we’re a very unselfish team,” he added. “We work hard to be unselfish and play defense with intensity and focus. It’s something we work hard on every day.”