By Joe Scalzo
On Wednesday night, Struthers senior Adam Ryczaj sat in the Boardman High stands watching Poland’s district semifinal game against Streetsboro, quietly rooted for one of his school’s most hated rivals to set up the type of district final matchup that builds legacies.
“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I want Poland,’” he said. “Ten years from now, when I think about it, I want to think, ‘I was a Struthers Wildcat and we beat our rivals, the Poland Bulldogs.’ Not Streetsboro.
“Nothing against them; it’s just the name I wanted to beat.”
He got what he wished for. And you know what they say about that.
For 24 minutes Saturday night, Poland’s rabbit-quick point guard, Drew Wagner, and it’s band of mostly no-name scrappers slowed down the game and sped up the heart rate of every red-shirted fan in the gym.
But a poised performance down the stretch by Ryczaj and a huge shot by junior Jake Jacubec allowed the Wildcats to regain their composure and survive a bigger scare than anyone imagined, beating Poland 36-33 for their first district title since 1999.
“The district usually goes through Poland,” said Struthers coach Joe Savko, whose team will play Cleveland John Hay in Thursday’s regional semifinal at the Canton Civic Center. “I told them, ‘You’re gonna have to take it from them because they’re not going to give it to you.’”
After losing by 40 in the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 2, most people figured Poland coach Ken Grisdale was bringing knives to Saturday’s gunfight. But while his team was short on talent — at least compared to most of his teams in the last decade — it was long on trust.
So he sold his strategy: Slow the game down in order to speed it up. Limit Struthers to five or six possessions per quarter. Make them chase you — or, more specifically, Wagner.
“Belief, trust and determination — those are the three things we talked about the last three days,” Grisdale said. “They had to believe in each other, they had to believe in our game plan and they had to play as hard as they could.
“And they always do that.”
After a shaky first quarter, Poland found its rhythm, holding Struthers — the team that had hung 97 points on them a few weeks earlier — scoreless over a 12-minute stretch from the beginning of the second quarter to the last minute of the third. By then, Poland had turned an eight-point deficit into a six-point lead.
“As coaches at halftime, we were in there saying, ‘What should we do against it?’” Struthers coach Joe Savko said. “And to be honest, it had us. We were flustered.
“We just tried to figure out a way to fight and claw back in the game.”
Savko turned to Ryczaj, who scored seven straight points over the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth to cut a six-point deficit to two with 6:14 left. After a Poland turnover, Jacubec hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 4:45 left that gave Struthers its first lead of the half.
“The place went nuts, erupted,” Ryczaj said. “That’s what we do — we feed off momentum.”
The teams went back and forth over the final minutes, with Struthers hitting four of its last six free throws to take a three-point lead with 28 seconds left. Poland, meanwhile, was held scoreless over the last three minutes, going 0-for-3 with a turnover and a missed free throw in that stretch.
The Bulldogs (17-6) had two chances to tie it in the closing seconds, but Colin Reardon missed an open look and Wagner’s last-second attempt was blocked. Grisdale thought Wagner was fouled — and he might have been — but it was more of a statement than a complaint.
Grisdale knew his team had lost on the scoreboard. And won everywhere else.
“I think we’re the better team but they played smart today,” Ryczaj said, “and that’s what kept them in the game.”