For the next three Friday nights, spanning about six-plus hours, one of the better races at the top of the Firelands Conference in recent memory will likely be decided.
Three teams with a combined record of 38-8 overall and 27-3 in the FC will meet in three separate head-to-head matchups. That starts with Friday’s game between visiting St. Paul (12-3, 10-0) and host Western Reserve (12-3, 8-2).
The Flyers — ranked No. 5 in this week’s Associated Press Division IV state poll — are alone in first place with four games remaining. A win would go a long way toward ending a 23-season FC championship drought. The Roughriders are in absolute must-win mode the rest of the way.
Longtime St. Paul coach Mike Smith cut straight to the chase following last Friday’s 64-56 win over New London. The Flyers visited Huron (12-2) — the first-place team in the SBC Bay Division and a top-seed contender in its Div. II district — the next night.
They lost a close game, 58-52, and have another road matchup on Thursday against another SBC Bay team in Margaretta (9-6). That game is 24 hours before the huge matchup in Collins.
“Let’s be real honest, our whole focus on Monday will be all about Western,” Smith said. “We’ll talk about Margaretta right before we get on the bus to Castalia. Obviously Western is playing great basketball, but the pressure is also on them a bit, because we’ve got them by two games right now.
“Having said that, I like our kids there in that spot,” he added. “They are hard-nose type kids who will go in there and battle, but that’s what Western is, too.”
After this Friday’s game, the Roughriders then host Div. IV No. 15 South Central (14-2, 9-1) in Collins on Feb. 7. The Trojans are one game behind St. Paul in the standings, the result of a 69-66 overtime loss to the Flyers on Jan. 3 in Norwalk. They beat Western Reserve on Dec. 27 in Greenwich, 56-49.
The third big game then occurs the following Friday on Feb. 14 in Greenwich when the Trojans entertain the Flyers. South Central lost the game at St. Paul, then four days later, it lost at unbeaten and Div. IV No. 3-ranked Lucas (14-0) on a Tuesday night.
But since those two setbacks, the Trojans have won five straight games by an average of 20 points — the last a big mental confidence boost, a 62-45 win at Div. II Norwalk on Jan. 25.
“We need to build on it,” South Central coach Brett Seidel said. “The last time we got a little stagnant and complacent and lost our edge a little bit — but we also lost to two really good teams as well.”
It was last season when a similar scenario played out.
The Trojans were 8-1 last season, then took back-to-back road losses to Norwalk (23-4) and Western Reserve (17-5), the latter of which played a role in them not winning the league title.
This time around, the Trojans are looking to zero in on the ‘Riders and Flyers before any talk of repeating as district champions begins.
“I think we got our edge back, but we’re not there yet,” South Central senior Isaiah Seidel said. “We’ve got a lot to do yet.”
Like the Flyers, the Roughriders are also coming off a loss — 70-60 vs. New Middletown Springfield on Sunday — at the Eric Snow Classic in Canton.
“They defend and take care of the basketball — and we’ve got to be strong with the ball because of the way they deny all over,” Smith said of Western Reserve. “But I also think our strength is going downhill, and if that is our option, then we’ll take it and attack the basket. We’re looking forward to it.”
After the head-to-head matchups, St. Paul hosts Mapleton (1-13, 0-10) and Plymouth (7-9, 3-7) on Feb. 7 and Feb. 21. South Central hosts Crestview (2-12, 1-9) this Friday and visits Monroeville (8-7, 5-5 on Feb. 21. The Roughriders visit Monroeville on Feb. 14 and host New London (5-10, 4-6) on Feb. 21.
Smith said even though his team is chasing the program’s first FC title in 22 years, they are also in the unique position of being chased.
“The ball is in our court and I like our hand,” he said. “We’re getting everyone’s best shot, but I think in the long run that will help us. But my biggest concern right now is I don’t think we’re defending the way need to. We’re kind of relying on one-on-one defense.
“In saying that, we’ve faced some teams who have been shooting it pretty well,” Smith added. “We have to do a better job of matching up in transition. Those are going to be warts down the stretch if we don’t do a better job.”
St. Paul 10-0 12-3
S. Central 9-1 14-2
W. Reserve 8-2 12-3
Monroeville 5-5 8-7
New London 4-6 5-10
Plymouth 3-7 7-9
Crestview 1-9 2-12
Mapleton 0-10 1-13