After 60 years one would hope for better. But the Fairland Dragons’ dream was diminished Friday by a team that makes the Final Four a regular thing…and VASJ played like it.
Columbus – If Thursday’s Division II semi-final between Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary and Trotwood was the tournament stunner because of that 39-point Trotwood win back in January – then Friday’s Division III semi-final between perennial semi-finalist Villa Angela-St. Joe and Fairland was certainly the emotional favorite.
57 years since the Fairland Dragons of Carl York last graced the court of the state tournament, a youthful coach Nathan Speed finally brought the tradition of Rome Township basketball back to the state tournament – and was reminded, as York was in 1961, that the inexplicable can happen to you in a place this big…with so much on the line.
Needless to say, the Dragons did not play their best, a 73-50 loser to Villa Angela, making their fifth straight appearance in the semi-finals, and hoping to atone for last year’s loss to Lima Central Catholic in the Division III championship game. Known for their fast style of play, their offensive firepower, and their willingness to play anyone at anytime, the Dragons simply ran into someone as fast, as good, and more experienced on the tournament’s biggest stage.
“Well, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but I thought we played hard,” said Speed in the post-game press briefing. “We had some silly turnovers. We could have been a little bit more patient. Defensively, early I thought we did a good job until the game got to the point where we had to come out and attack more, away from what we were more comfortable in doing. And then that allowed them good opportunities to score in transition.”
But two prominent issues led to the Dragons’ demise…as well as VASJ moving on to Saturday’s championship final.
1) Experience…Making their fifth straight trip to the Final Four, their experience and comfort with playing with so much on the line was clearly evident, as illustrated by Vikings’ coach Babe Kwasniak.
“Congratulations to those guys for getting here,” said Kwasniak. “I told Nate after the game that in our five years coming here I thought they were the best team we’ve played in the semi-finals.
“They’re excellent, but nothing’s guaranteed when you get here. But they’re very well-coached and they’ve got as good a shot as anyone in the tournament to get back here next year. They’re very skilled, but the difference in my mind was our experience. I think our kids are used to this stage, not that their kids weren’t used to it…and there’s no substitute for experience when you get this far.”
And 2), there was clearly an issue of depth perception and shooting in an arena the size of the Schottenstein Center, compared to the average high school gyms played of teams making their first appearance here.
“You like to tell the kids that the rims are soft and it’s a great place to shoot,” said Speed. “But it is difficult, especially when you’ve played for so long in smaller gyms. Coming out of Athens and the Convocation Center I thought that helped a little bit, we got some good looks from that, but it’s still not the same. There’s just so much more space here.”
Fairland traded baskets for the first three minutes of the game, but at that point Kwasniak inserted Will Butler, a bull of a shooting guard who weighs about 245 pounds and refuses to take no for an answer when he decides to get to the rim. Butler hit four of his first five shots on his way to 16 points for the game…and his presence seemed to turn the tide of the pace, and the game, for Villa Angela.
Fairland went cold, shooting on 26% for the second quarter, while Villa Angela and Butler, Jerry Higgins, and Daniel McGarry kept filling it up. To add the exclamation point, 6’10” center Alonzo Gaffney threw down a couple of thunderous dunks off turnovers…and you could simply feel the air seep from the Dragons’ balloon, and their dream.
Like 1961, there was a tremendous turnout of green there to watch, to support. But like 57 years ago, the second half of the game held little joy, as well. Down 39-19, the Dragons saw VASJ come out and score the first six points on their way to an eventual 20-14 margin in the quarter. Fairland showed its athleticism and plenty of their offensive attributes, but forced to play at Villa’s tempo against all that size, their output amounted to trading baskets.
With the game settled in the fourth, Speed’s Dragons actually did outscore VASJ, 15-14, but there was no “Hoosiers” ending to the story.
Villa Angela shot a remarkable 61% for the game, and 33% from three-point range. Gaffney, who got off to a slow start, heated up in the second half to lead the team with 18 points. The others finished in double figures, as well…Higgins with 17, Garry with 11, and Butler with is 16.
Fairland shot a disappointing 39%, and just 4 of 15 from behind the three-point arc (26.7%). Worse, they didn’t get to the line much, but only hit 2 of 8 when they did (25%). Three cracked double figures for the Dragons, led by Keedrick Cunningham’s 17 points, Luke Thomas (11), and Kollin Van Horn (10).
While it was a disappointing day, and one that Keedrick Cunningham called “hurtful”, it was none-the-less a day portending the glass being half full, relative to the prospects of Fairland basketball for the future. There’s not one senior on the team, a significant peculiarity, and one that Nathan Speed promises will yield an exciting encore next year.
“It is unusual,” he said. “But it’s also that’s brought us an amazing unity. These are all local Rome Township kids, with the except of Keedrick (Cunningham), who came here because his dad took our football job. Southeastern Ohio basketball is strong, and our league has at least three or four coaches in it who’ve brought teams to the state tournament. So yes, today is a disappointing day, but we’ll be back in the gym in a month preparing to come back next year.”
And to the sea of green that turned for the exits at the end, it was not before a rousing ovation for the group that finally provided the encore to York’s magical group, “The Untouchables”, of 1961. While Babe Kwasniak’s kind words rang hollow with the dejection of the moment Friday, one thing stood out as they filed out to the parking lot.
Everyone who saw them in Value City Arena believed…it won’t take them 57 years to get here again.