Have Valley hoops hit a low point?
By Joe Scalzo
In the late 1980s, when Brian Danilov was just a lowly junior-varsity basketball coach at Campbell, a group of his players would routinely wake up early, jump into an old, beat-up Cadillac (“There was smoke coming out, and I think the axles were sideways,” Danilov said) and drive around the city looking for games.
“They knew who was good, and they knew what was going on, and they’d just find the best games that day, whether it was in the city or Boardman or McDonald or wherever,” he said.
Football was king in Youngstown — same as always — but Rayen’s high fliers were in the regionals every year, Liberty’s “lunatics” were helping the Leopards extend Trumbull County’s longest win streak and girls basketball fans were seeing what happens when the area’s best athletes focused on hoops.
Basketball was in bloom in the Mahoning Valley.
Twenty-five years later, winter has arrived.
It’s been 20 years since Danilov led Campbell to the Division III state title, one of three won by Mahoning Valley teams in 1993 and 1994.
It was the high point of the Valley’s basketball history. And it may never happen again.
Since an underdog Ursuline team won the 1994 title, just seven area boys teams have advanced to the Final Four. All seven lost in the semifinals.
Warren Harding was the last area boys basketball team to make it to Columbus, in 2009, and over the past three years, Valley boys teams have gone 4-12 in regional games.
Meanwhile, teams from Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton — six of Ohio’s eight major population centers — have won state titles since 2010. Only Youngstown/Warren and Toledo have fallen short, but at least Toledo Whitmer made it to last year’s Division I state final.
Things aren’t any better in girls basketball. The Valley went 0-3 in regional games last season and area teams have gone 2-13 in regional play the last four years.
Since Boardman’s girls advanced to Columbus in 2008 — the Valley’s last state qualifier — teams from Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo have won state titles while Dayton had a runner-up in last year’s Division I state final.
Not a single Valley girls team was ranked in this week’s Associated Press state poll and just one boys team (Bristol, which was ranked 12th in Division IV) made the list.
All of this begs the question: Is this the worst it’s ever been?
SO, IS IT?
Danilov is a coach’s son — his father, Eli, preceded him at Campbell — and he looks a little like Bruce Springsteen. (Sounds like him, too, at least when he’s not singing.) Like Springsteen, Danilov grew up in a Rust Belt town. And, like Springsteen, he tends to romanticize his blue-collar roots.
“Kids don’t get out on the playground as much anymore,” Danilov said on a phone call in mid-January, where he used a rare Tuesday night off to take in the Wisconsin-Indiana game. “They used to travel all over the place to play. Now kids are more prone to travel to buy the newest video game. They’re more excited to camp out at midnight to pick up the new [Call of Duty] ‘Black Ops’ and sit on their a-- all day long.”
After advancing to five district finals (and winning two) in his second stint at Campbell, Danilov took a year off, then took the Cardinal Mooney job in the offseason. On Dec. 14, the Cardinals played their second game of the season, against Youngstown Christian. Both programs were district finalists as recently as 2010 but, on that night, neither team looked like it had picked up a basketball since then.
The halftime score was 10-9 and, after winning 40-24, Danilov said his team must have gone to the “Stevie Wonder school of layups.”
“The smaller your area, the more your talent goes in cycles,” Danilov said. “A lot of schools — I don’t want to say they’re rebuilding, but maybe the talent cycle isn’t at its apex as it was a couple years ago.”
Ken Grisdale wasn’t as diplomatic. Grisdale is in his 20th season as Poland’s boys basketball coach. He has a 334-122 (the best record in school history) and has advanced to the state tournament three times — 2002, 2007 and 2008.
His Bulldogs are 13-1 this season and, at times, look capable of winning Poland’s seventh district title in nine years.
But Grisdale knows it’s not one of his best teams. He also knows it may not matter, at least not this year.
“Top to bottom, it’s probably as low as it’s been [in the Valley],” he said. “I thought football was down this year, too. I just think the level of athletes is down. It’s just a down cycle right now.”
Ursuline coach Keith Gunther, who has won three district titles and came within a game of the state tournament in 2011, actually started chuckling when he heard what this story was about.
“There’s no question about it, it’s down,” he said. “I mean, I think that’s obvious to anybody who really knows the game of basketball.”
And it’s not just in boys basketball.
Howland girls coach John Diehl, whose team lost to Boardman in the 2008 regional final, has sent five players to Division I schools since 2000. This is his 19th year and he’s 10 wins from 300.
“It is down a little bit this year,” Diehl said. “I just think the area is lacking a little in talent right now. I don’t want to make anyone mad but I don’t think there are any Division I players out there right now.”
He paused, listened to a voice in the background and chuckled.
“My wife says, ‘Please don’t say that,’” he said. “I don’t know if you can word that nicely or not.”
Minutes later, Diehl came up with one — Fitch junior Megan Sefcik — but his point stands. This area has produced eight Big Ten girls basketball players since 2000 alone, but right now, the Valley is a little bit dry.
NO OASIS IN SIGHT
Thing is, when it comes to basketball, the Valley has always been a little bit dry. Asking if 2012-13 is the worst in the Valley’s basketball history is like asking if “Transformers 2” is Michael Bay’s worst movie.
This area is good in a lot of sports — football, obviously, but also baseball, softball, track and cross country — but it typically struggles in the winter.
“It’s like in Massillon,” Gunther said. “What do the kids get in their cribs? Footballs. It’s the same mentality in this area.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t be good at basketball at times, I just think we’re primarily big on football. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
The current 19-year state championship drought in boys basketball is only half as long as the area’s longest, a 38-year span that started after Columbiana’s 1947 title and ended with Rayen cutting down the nets in 1985.
That three-title stretch in the 1990s? Well, it took two high-profile transfers from the Bahamas (Girard and Campbell had one each, which is still a sore subject 20 years later) and a team that went 10-10 in the regular season (Ursuline) to do so.
In fact, since the boys tournament started in 1923, only six Valley teams have won state titles and 10 others finished second.
By contrast, since Ohio began the football playoffs in 1972, the Valley has won 20 state titles and played for 16 others. The area routinely produces NFL players — two were drafted last April and two others made NFL teams — it hasn’t had an NBA draft pick since Rayen’s Greg Jones in 1983, who was cut by the Indiana Pacers and wound up in the CBA. Heck, the Valley hasn’t even had a boys basketball player earn a scholarship to a BCS conference school since Terence Dials in 2001.
No one expects the area to go another 19 years without a basketball title, but when Grisdale was asked if he thought a Valley team would win a state championship in the next 10 years, he said, “Um, you never say never, but I don’t think the odds are great.
“But I don’t think you can always judge an area by state titles. It’s not easy to win a state championship. A lot of things have to fall in line. The urban areas [in Ohio] and parochials play a different level of basketball.”
Meanwhile, no area girls team has been in a state final since Ursuline in 2006 and no one has won it since Ursuline and West Branch both did so in 1994.
That streak probably won’t end this year. The area’s best teams are all in Division II, where Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown has won the last four state titles and returns four starters from last year’s team.
DOWN, BUT NOT OUT
Still, there’s hope. (Hopefully.)
All of the coaches contacted for this story talked about how talent comes in cycles — “It’s down, but I don’t think it’s a trend,” Diehl said — and one girls coach, Canfield’s Pat Pavlansky, even thinks this year’s crop is pretty good.
“You might say I’m sort of skewed, but girls basketball, to me, is pretty good in the area,” Pavlansky said. “I like my team and I think there’s a lot of good teams.”
Declining population and a lack of tradition puts Youngstown and Warren at a disadvantage compared to other parts of Ohio. — “We do a good job around here and the kids work their tails off,” said Danilov, “but when you get to the big ponds ...” — and, yes, a down cycle can spell doom for even the best programs. For instance, Warren JFK’s girls lost in the district final in each of the last two years but were forced to cancel the rest of this season after 0-6 start due to a lack of players.
But not having one great team doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good teams.
“Great’s always a tough one,” said Niles coach Ron Price, who has been an assistant or a head coach in the Valley for 20 years. “I think everybody is OK/good, and we’re going to find out who becomes real good.”
Just because it’s hard to build a great team in the Valley doesn’t mean it’s impossible, Gunther said.
This area may never become a hoops haven like, say, Dayton or Columbus, but it can still hold its own, even on the highest level.
We’re just waiting for someone to prove it.
“I promise you this — when Ursuline won it in 1994, no one thought they would,” Gunther said. “We already know it’s possible to get to the regional. And if you’re good enough to get out of the regional in northeast Ohio, you’re probably good enough to play with anyone. You just need a team that has some size and some athleticism and really believes they can do it.
“Because once you get to Columbus, anything can happen.”