By Chuck Housteau
AUSTINTOWN — The East High boys basketball team might be the best kept secret in the area.
And that doesn’t bother East’s coach Mark Cherol one bit.
Friday, the Panthers (15-4) won their 11th consecutive game in impressive fashion over Austintown Fitch, 73-49.
The win came one night after an even more impressive 62-59 win at home over Warren Harding (16-3).
Yet the Panthers are only a six seed in the upcoming Division I district tournament at Canton while Harding is the top seed in the Solon district.
“We’ve kind of had a chip on our shoulders for awhile,” Cherol said. “I thought we should have been seeded higher in the tournament at Canton but its better that teams don’t know or respect us very much.
“We are going into the playoffs with a lot of confidence right now.”
As usual, East’s seven seniors played outstanding defense, pressuring the Falcons into 21 turnovers and that led to many easy transitional baskets.
Offensively, the Panthers relied on its five starting seniors who have all scored around ten points per game for the season.
Jarelle Burt, the team’s leading scorer, tallied 22 points to lead the Panthers offense while center Justin Brown had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven blocked shots.
Norman Johnson scored nine points while Martez Penn added eight points. Jesse Johnson also scored seven points and Trumaine Jenkins six.
“We have a lot of weapons,” said Cherol about his seniors. “I told these guys right from the start that they all had talent and if they didn’t worry about who is scoring and just want to win that we could be a special team.
“These guys know that on any night, any one of them can score and that it’s hard for any team we play to shut us all down on the same night.”
The Panthers did struggle early in the season.
East went 4-4 after an opening season loss to Harding, and then played poorly in games against Massillon Washington and twice against Youngstown Christian.
Since then, the Panthers have been unstoppable.
“I think we came together as a team,” Brown said. “We are almost like brothers now and we know what everyone is capable of to make us win games.”
Burt, who is one of the most athletic players, said that the Panthers have a ton of confidence right now and that is what is fueling the East streak.
“We know that we have the ability to win if we play hard,” Burt said. “We played great defense tonight against Fitch and that has really made our offensive game even better.
“Early in the season we didn’t play much defense and then had to work hard on offense to make things happen. Now we score off of our defense.”
Although Cherol was worried that the Panthers might be in for a letdown after the win over Harding and the team’s third game in four nights, East came out with a vengeance.
The Panthers jumped out 16-4 over the Falcons (1-19) on Fitch’s Senior Night.
Fitch did right the ship and played well the rest of the first half and only trailed East 35-26 at the break.
Senior Chris Miller scored 15 of his team-high 18 points in the first half as the Falcons battled back against East’s defense.
“We were a little flat at times in the first half,” Cherol said. “But we really turned on the defense in the third quarter.”
East outscored Fitch 21-6 in the period and Cherol was able to rest his starters for much of the fourth quarter.
The Falcons have been in a rebuilding year under first-year coach Jason Baker and has played with many underclassmen.
Senior Jahwuan Pete scored 11 points for Fitch while DeAndre Richardson added seven.
East will begin tournament play March 6th against the winner of Fitch and Canton McKinley.