By Joe Scalzo
The Poland High boys basketball team plays its biggest rival, Canfield, at least twice a year. The Bulldogs might play their second-biggest rival nearly twice a decade
And that’s what makes tonight’s Division II district semifinal against Cardinal Mooney (10-11) so special.
“You’d have to be dead not to be excited to play in this game,” said Bulldogs coach Ken Grisdale.
Led by junior Jake Wolfe, the top-seeded Bulldogs went 20-2 in the regular season and tied the Cardinals for the All-American Conference Red Division title. They will try to advance to their 13th district final in 20 years against a Mooney team that features a strong defense and one of the area’s biggest (and best) players in 6-8 senior center Doug Caputo.
“We battled early on with a lack of experience and things were going bad early in the year, so hopefully we’re a lot better than that,” said Mooney’s first-year coach, Brian Danilov. “Poland’s a really solid team. They don’t beat themselves and they shoot the ball good, so we’ve got to be able to close out on their shooters and keep our defensive integrity.
“It’s going to be an intense game.”
It usually is. The teams last played each other in basketball three years ago when Poland beat the Cardinals in the district final, 75-65.
“Those guys still talk about that game,” said Grisdale.
While Mooney boasts the area’s best football program, Poland has been the best basketball program in the Valley for more than a decade, advancing to the state semifinals three times since 2002. But Danilov has made his name in the postseason, winning a Division III state title with Campbell in 1993 and advancing to six straight district finals with the Red Devils from 2006-2011.
“His teams always play with a ton of intensity and they’re pretty darn good schematically,” Grisdale said of Danilov. “I’ve got a great deal of respect for what he’s done over the years.”
Danilov feels the same way and wishes the teams could play more often.
“When I was at Campbell, me and Griz used to play twice a year so I don’t know why we can’t now,” Danilov said. “People talk about how this is a bitter rivalry, but I’m like, ‘How can you have a bitter rivalry if you never play?’”
The schools stopped scheduling each other in most sports in 2006 following an acrimonious boys basketball game at Poland. The fact that many Mooney athletes live in Poland adds a layer of familiarity — and intensity — to the games.
“A lot of people say Canfield-Poland is a tough venue, but Poland-Mooney is as tough or tougher,” said Grisdale. “I remember we played them in Chad Fender’s senior year [in 2005] and it was a knock-down, drag-out brawl. But not in a negative sense. It was like two teams competing for a state championship.”
That, Grisdale said, is what high school competition is supposed to be like.
“These are the games kids look forward to playing, the games they’re going to remember,” he said. “They’re the games where they give everything they’ve got.
“What’s wrong with that?”