By Jon Moffett
There is little debate as to who the best player is on the Struthers High boys basketball team.
Matchup: Struthers vs. Clev. John Hay
When: Today, 8 p.m.
Where: Canton Civic Center
But coach Joe Savko says not so fast. The best player may change in any given situation.
“The open man is our best player,” Savko said.
And that open man will be critical for the Wildcats to make it as far as any other Struthers boys team has gone in its history. The Wildcats will take on Cleveland John Hay in a Division II regional semifinal game tonight at the Canton Civic Center. Struthers hasn’t made it to the regional final since it lost to Cleveland Benedictine in 1999.
Savko said the team is excited — especially after escaping a big scare in the district title game against Poland. But things are business as usual at the Struthers Fieldhouse where the Wildcats (21-2) are approaching the game like it’s just another game.
“There is a certain buzz about it, but in terms of our focus it’s to play the way we’ve been playing and take it just as a game,” Savko said. “We have to try and play our style of basketball for 32 minutes no matter who we’re playing.”
Still, Savko isn’t exactly going to make the team runs suicides if they’re a little excited about the game and possibly beyond.
“We told them that hey, it’s been 12 years [since we’ve been in the regional title game]. This is a big deal for the community, for the school and for these kids,” he said. “They’re one of the top 16 teams in the state in their division and that’s something to be proud of in its own.”
But it’s not enough.
Last year, the Wildcats made it to the district semifinals where Cardinal Mooney ended their season. But the experience has given the team a better idea of the caliber of basketball it should expect. Savko said the team is more focused having exited prematurely last season.
“We took a lot from that game. We knew that we had to get stronger as individuals, which would make us stronger as a team,” he said. “We knew we had to work on some things that we couldn’t do last year to reach the goals that we had set out for ourselves.”
Those goals include a win in the regional semifinal. And in the final, which would earn the Wildcats the school’s first trip to the state tournament.
And Savko feels the pieces are in place. The team has a solid core of starters and several key backups. The team is led by senior Nate Jacubec, who averaged more than 19 points a game this season and seemingly could nail a 3-pointer from anywhere.
Jacubec, along with younger brother Jake, and fellow seniors Adam Ryzcaj, Jordan Ryan and Ja’Miere Brown make up the starting five. And with Kevin McDonald, Jermaine Brooks and Will Clark coming off the bench, the Wildcats have a formidable squad.
Savko says it all starts with the seniors. And Nate Jacubec has taken over the role as team leader, the coach said, which makes his job easier.
“Nate has a really good work ethic and leadership,” he said. “And as a team you’ve got to have work ethic. So when your best player has work ethic and is a hard worker, it makes it easy on us at coaches. All you have to do is tell Nate something and he’ll do it as hard as he can, and then the rest of the team will do it as hard as they can.”
The elder Jacubec said the team’s chemistry is what makes them so special — and dangerous. Post players Ryczaj and Ryan do the dirty work and if the middle isn’t open, they kick it out to one of the Jacubecs or Brown.
And the chemistry forms a tight bond.
“It’s really special. I love playing with them. They’re like my brothers,” Nate said.
And then he looked at Jake.