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All eyes shift to Beeghly Sunday



Published: Fri, February 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Understand that the George Junior Republic boys basketball team has played in a lot of big games over the years.

Understand that the Tigers have played in front of a lot of big crowds.

But Sunday, they will experience something that Coach Bob McConnell says will be on a whole different scale for his team.

"You can't compare anything to what they're going to walk into Sunday," McConnell said. "TV stations, 6,000 people, the best player in the country."

McConnell will bring his team to a sold-out Beeghly Center, where it will play Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary and phenomenon LeBron James, who just happens to be this week's Sports Illustrated cover-man.

"We've played in front of good crowds on a lot of people's home floors," McConnell said. "But we're an inexperienced team.

"You can't prepare them for that," he said of the upcoming environment. "We have to be men, and hopefully we can hang with them."

Inexperienced: McConnell isn't making excuses for his team. The fact is, the Tigers are inexperienced. They are almost every year.

That's the way it is at George Junior Republic, a reform school in Grove City, Pa. Kids' average stay at the school is nine months to a year.

Yes, those kids, who arrive from 18 different states, are athletic and they enable the Tigers to put together some of the best talent in the country, but often kids haven't had much experience playing organized basketball.

"All my kids are freshmen and sophomores because very few have played on many teams, even though they may be 18- and 19-year-old seniors," McConnell said. "As far as basketball goes, they're freshmen."

But McConnell, the seventh-year head coach, has noticed a benefit from his players' learning progression.

"You tend to peak at the end of the season," McConnell said. "Every year I've been here, we've always gotten better at the end of the year.

"Very rarely do we keep guys from one year to the next," he said. "It's a one-year deal every year. We're trying to build a team in four to five months. We're trying to compete at the highest level, with even more urgency to get better quickly."

No. 4-ranked: Those "freshmen" will rely on their talent to upset two-time defending state champion St. Vincent-St. Mary, which is ranked fourth in the country by USA Today and has become accustomed to playing in front of big crowds.

The Irish moved their home games to 5,000-seat James A. Rhodes Arena in Akron to accommodate the mass of fans, who come to see what this LeBron James hype is all about.

"LeBron is a great kid, a once-in-a-lifetime player to coach," said St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II, who has known James since the player was 11 years old. "He is an unselfish basketball player who makes the kids around him better."

Beeghly Center sold out nearly two weeks in advance for the rematch of last year's game at Canton's Memorial Fieldhouse, where St. Vincent-St. Mary prevailed 66-53.

So, does George Junior Republic have the talent to compete with St. Vincent-St. Mary? Yes.

No. 6-ranked: Remember that the Tigers came within a buzzer-beater in overtime of reaching Pennsylvania's big-school state championship game last season, and they are ranked sixth in the state this week.

But the real gauge will come Sunday when you bring in the television stations, seat 6,000 fans and put the uniform on James and his talented teammates.

Only then will we know whether George Junior Republic folds, like so many previous Irish opponents have, or makes a national statement of its own.

XBrian Richesson covers high school sports for The Vindicator. Write to him at richesson@vindy.com.




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