By JOE SCALZO
Lowellville High girls basketball coach Tony Matisi looks like a grizzly bear and acts like a teddy bear.
He’s the type of guy who high-fives the opposing players as they’re being introduced before the game. I sat behind his bench for two regular season games this year and I heard him dispute one call by the officials. Total. And it wasn’t even much of a dispute. He just said, “That was a travel.”
Boardman girls coach Ron Moschella, by contrast, averages 10 times that many in his sleep alone. Scientists have studied Moschella’s sleep patterns and they discovered that, during REM sleep, he murmurs things like, “WHAT IS SHE DOING?” and “THERE IS NO WAY!”
There’s just one problem. Matisi is cursed. Even his wife thinks so. Says he’s followed around by a black cloud. His best teams inevitably suffer some sort of calamitous injury, or some discipline issue or some Berlin Hiland-related issue. (Like, for instance, having to play Berlin Hiland.)
This year, he lost his second-leading scorer, Kaye Solak, to an ACL tear in January. Then lost his leading scorer, Taylor Hvisdak, to an ACL tear in the sectional final, almost exactly a year after losing her to a broken arm during the tournament. When I first saw him before the district final against Warren JFK, he just smiled at me and said, “I know, I know.”
And yet, after all that, Matisi’s team somehow managed to give me my two best moments of the winter season. First, his Rockets held off JFK in double overtime in one of those wonderful games that makes me feel guilty for not having a real job. Then, a week later, I watched as Hvisdak came off the bench to not only play on a torn ACL, but lead her team in scoring.
Did I mention I get paid to do this? And that I get in free for these games?
This is my annual winter wrap-up column. I spent much of the winter covering YSU’s men’s basketball team, so I didn’t get to as many high school games as I’d like. But I managed to make it to between 25-30 prep basketball games, the state swimming meet and the state indoor track meet. So, that’ll have to do.
If I missed someone terrific — and I’m talking to you, Harding boys basketball team — my apologies.
Also, I didn’t cover any wrestling or bowling, although I had someone stop me at a YSU basketball game early in the season saying I should cover more high school bowling.
He was wrong. I cover exactly the right amount of high school bowling.
Boys basketball player of the year: Ursuline senior DeVonte Jenkins. He’s an elite athlete who played his best basketball in the tournament. After watching him dominate his team in the district semifinals, Rootstown coach and Canfield native Andy Vlajkovich said, “We can’t guard Jenkins. You can bring doubles, you can bring five guys. But he’s just jumping over five 5-9 guys.” I’d love to see YSU give him a shot.
Girls basketball player of the year: Howland junior Taylor Williams. If you need an explanation, you haven’t seen her play.
Athlete of the season: Maplewood senior Jordan Moxley. She won a Division II swimming title, then, on the next weekend, decided, “What the heck, I’ll give indoor track a shot.” Two weekends after that, she won a state indoor high jump title. I take solace in knowing that I can (probably) type faster than she can.
School of the year: Ursuline’s girls and boys basketball teams both advanced to the Division III regional basketball semifinals, but that’s not my choice. I’m picking Struthers, which won boys and girls district titles and had a state champion bowler in Corey Bayus. The Wildcats finished fourth in the bowling team standings and did pretty well at the state indoor track meet.
BUMMER of the year
Not only has the Valley has gone 17 years without a state boys basketball title, it hasn’t even had a team advance to the title game over that span. The Valley is 0-6 in state semifinals since Ursuline won a Division III crown in 1994.
BIGGER Bummer of the year
For the second straight year, I did not get an Ursuline pepperoni roll.
Five favorite athletes to interview
Lakeview senior swimmer Emilee Gysegem, Canfield senior swimmer Gavin Trebilcock and Boardman senior swimmer Ashley Aldan. (I often forget to ask swimmers about their grades because I automatically assume they’re honor students. And honor students make great interviews.) Hubbard senior boys basketball player Kory Hopkinson. (When I asked him if he shaved his head to look like Eagles coach Rick Fox, he said, “That’s mean.” And he didn’t mean that it was mean to Fox.) And former Ursuline boys basketball player Jordan Dubose, who beat bone cancer and served as an inspiration for the team’s run to the regional finals. He managed to seem 18 and 50 at the same time.
Ten favorite players to watch
Struthers senior basketball players Nate Jacubec and Adam Ryczaj. (I’m going to miss watching both, but I’m not going to miss spelling Adam’s name.) Poland senior guard Drew Wagner. (Almost single-handedly beat Struthers in the district final. Almost.) Ursuline senior guard Khiree Gregory. (Crazy quick.) Southern senior guard Eric Baker. (Crazy hops.) Pretty much anyone from McDonald’s boys basketball team. (I’m not sure they had a true basketball player on that team and they still managed to make it to the regional finals.) Anyone on New Castle’s boys basketball team. (And they’re almost all underclassmen.) Struthers senior guard Katelyn Ardale. (Plays 100 miles per hour.) Lowellville junior guard Emily Carlson, (Ditto.) And, of course, Hvisdak.
Five favorite coaches to interview
Matisi. Struthers girls basketball coach John Grandy, who won his 100th game and vowed to catch Moschella, who has 500-plus. (“They may prop me up. It won’t be pretty.”) Warren-area swim coach Frank Supancic, who doesn’t have a filter from his brain to his mouth. I love people like that. Campbell boys coach Brian Danilov, even though he didn’t tell me any jokes this year. (I told him two, including this one: “It’s so cold outside, I just saw a Youngstown politician with his hands in his own pockets.”) And Ursuline girls coach Sean Durkin, who just laughs when I look at his gut and say things like, “You’re either going to need less stomach or more tie.” Normally I’d put Moschella on this list — then make fun of his cologne — but since I didn’t cover the Spartans, I’ll have to find someone else. So I’ll go with Mooney boys coach Chris Kohl, who takes the game, but not himself, seriously. I love people like that, too.
Seven quotes I loved the most
Because I couldn’t narrow it down to five.
From Salem coach Rich Hart, when asked if he learned anything from watching Struthers lose to nationally-ranked Huntington (W.Va.) Prep:
“I found out what we need is two or three 7-footers and a couple 6-5 guards and we could handle them without a problem.”
From Supancic, when asked about one of his swimmers, McDonald senior Katie Joseph, coming back from a so-so-performance in the 200-yard freestyle to win the state title in the 100 free:
“Other kids would have gone in the crapper. They would have been babies. She just stays within herself. She basically tells other people, ‘If you want to beat me, you’re gonna have to swim out of your mind.’”
From Aldan, on the side effects of having hypermobility, a genetic abnormality that allows her to bend her joints much farther than normal:
“I can twist and bend in ways that would make other people, like, vomit. I’m not gonna lie — it’s pretty gross.”
From Fox, when asked about the aesthetic beauty of a regular season home win over Liberty:
“We’re not a pretty team. Haven’t you seen some of my guys’ faces?”
From Grandy, on the secret to his team’s success:
“They don’t listen to me, so it’s not the coaching.”
From Howland coach John Diehl, on losing to Canal Winchester Harvest Prep after the eventual Division IV state champions shot 19 of 24 from the free throw line, including 13 of 15 in the second half:
“I don’t know if you believe stats, but in the brochure it said they’re shooting 46 percent from the line as a team. I’m thinking now that might have been a typo.”
And, finally, from Matisi, who was told by a reporter (i.e. me) that his team would have no chance of beating Harvest Prep if the Rockets got that far:
“Hey, I’ll take a whupping from them.” Joe Scalzo covers sports for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.