By Joe Scalzo
Spending six years away from Niles’ bench appears to have mellowed boys basketball coach Ron Price in the same way that caffeine mellows first-graders.
While he’s not as manic as, say, McDonald coach Jeff Rasile — for one thing, Price is still able to talk afterward and for another, he actually sat down once or twice on Friday — he still spends most of his time screaming at his players (“Get on the floor!”) or the officials (“What was that?!!”).
“I guess all coaches are nuts,” he said, shrugging. “You have to be.”
That approach helps explain how he’s molded a team with no height (his tallest player is 6-foot-3) and no dominant player into a team that has more than doubled last year’s win total (eight wins compared to three).
“Coach Price said we were overachievers and that pushed us,” said junior James Tate, who scored a game-high 17 points Friday in a 63-57 victory at Struthers. “Last year was just a bad year so we come out strong and always play hard now. I think we’re a closer team this year than last year.”
It’s also deeper. Employing a five-for-five strategy (five in, five out), Price’s team pushed the tempo and flustered the Wildcats into 11 first-quarter turnovers to take a 16-6 lead.
“Here’s the thing,” said Struthers’ normally-mellow coach Joe Savko, who grew so frustrated at one point that he picked up his jacket off his chair and threw it back down. “All year, we hadn’t worked on playing against a team that is going to switch defenses. Over the last three days, that’s all we worked on.
“For whatever reason, that didn’t carry over to the game.”
While Struthers made a few runs to make the game interesting, the Red Dragons pushed their lead to 15 points midway through the fourth quarter and the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
“It was like we’d make a little run and we’d get hectic again, we’d get haywire,” said Savko, whose team had just 12 turnovers after the first quarter. “Whenever we made a run, Coach Price switched up his defense to try to keep us off-balance and it worked.”
Eight different players scored for Niles (8-4, 3-1 All-American Conference American Division) with Ray Russ adding 12 points, five rebounds and four steals and Kyle Paden scoring 10 points with eight rebounds.
“I think we had good balance,” said Price, who went 84-71 at Niles from 1999-2006 before a brief stint at Mathews. “We had a lot of kids that have earned playing time and going five-for-five allowed us to jump out on them.”
Ray’Quan Phifer scored 17 points and Dan Partika had 13 for Struthers (4-9, 2-4), which was playing without senior Tommy Kimbrough, who was hospitalized with a gunshot wound during an incident Thursday.
“You feel bad whenever anything like that happens,” Price said. “We talked about it in our prayer and you always hope things work out.”