By TIM CLEVELAND
Warren Harding boys basketball coach Andy Vlajkovich isn’t just interested in winning, he also wants the Raiders to play up to his high standards while doing it.
That would explain his disappointment with his team despite a 75-52 victory Saturday over Boardman.
“I just thought we were sluggish,” Vlakovich said. “I thought our defensive effort was real sluggish. We looked like a team interested in Christmas break and not in trying to compete for a Lake Erie League title. Boardman’s kids played really hard.
“We talked about how we’re not going to play to a score, we’re going to play to a standard. We did not play to that standard.”
That’s despite Harding (3-1) shooting more than 50 percent from the field (30 of 53) and forcing 24 Boardman turnovers.
Vlajkovich’s frustration stemmed mainly from the first half, as Boardman (1-5) overcame its size and athleticism disadvantages to go on a 13-0 run to take an 18-13 lead in the second quarter. Harding got itself going at that point, pulling away with an 18-2 burst of its own to go ahead 31-20 early in the third quarter.
“It was probably the only minutes we actually put forth some effort and got out in transition,” Vlajkovich said. “I thought the tempo favored (Boardman) for most of it. Once the pace of the game got going faster, we started to get some easy buckets.”
Boardman coach Pat Birch said while his team played well for a stretch, much more effort is needed.
“That’s who we’re capable of being,” he said. “I told the guys we’re on a rollercoaster. At times, we’re playing great basketball and we’re trying to get that consistency across the board. But then we answer that with runs that are just as negative. For us, we’re looking to keep that (high) level the whole time.”
Shakem Johnson led the Raiders, both during that run and overall. The 6-foot-5 sophomore scored six points during the run, finishing with a team-high 21 points and nine rebounds.
“My teammates were helping me get shots,” he said. “We tried to play hard on D, get back on offense and run in transition. We could’ve played better on the defensive end and we could’ve taken care of the ball more.”
Vlajkovich said Johnson has made huge strides in his development from last season with hard work in the gym.
“The growth is incredible,” Vlajkovich said. “All of our staff has worked with him. Keelyn Franklin, one of our assistants, has done a remarkable job with him. He gets about a 20-, 25-minute individual post workout every day during the season.
“He is such a hungry learner and you’re just seeing the fruits of a lot of that attention. Where he was last year and where he is this year is a testament to Keelyn and to (Shakem’s) work ethic.”
The Spartans kept the pace of the game their way during the early going. Sophomore Gannon Murray came off the bench to lead Boardman with 13 points, including seven during the 13-0 run.
“He’s capable of a lot,” Birch said. “When he plays consistent, that’s what he can do. He’s another kid that we’re trying to constantly get more out of. He has a lot of potential; you saw that tonight against a good team.”
Vlajkovich stressed that Harding needs to improve its play despite its 3-1 start with a pair of difficult games ahead.
“We’ve got a lot of growing up to do because the meat of our schedule hits us next week,” he said. “We play at Warrensville Heights, who’s the defending regional finalist in Division II, and then St. Ignatius, who’s a perennial power in Cleveland. We need to pick it up.”