By tom williams
When the Youngstown Christian football season ended four months ago in the regional final with a loss to Mogadore, senior Nick Gonda said the idea of the Eagles' basketball team equaling that accomplishment seemed farfetched.
"I didn't [see the possibility], to be honest," Gonda said after Friday's 86-50 loss to Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in the Division IV regional final at Canton Fieldhouse. "But we worked really hard and we earned this [appearance].
"We [finally] acted as a team [after] we started off slow," Gonda said of the Eagles' nine-game winning streak that ended with the loss to the Vikings (23-4).
"The football season [went long]," Gonda said. "Then we started working together."
For Eagle head coach Dolph Carroll, the schools' first regional appearance since 2009 was also unlikely until the then 7-8 Eagles defeated Springfield in Springfield to start the streak.
"Here's what I envisioned — I knew we had the potential to be a great team," Carroll said. "That's what I kept telling them — you're the greatest 7-8 team I've ever had.
"Not because we were great basketball players, but because they had great heart and they kept working hard," Carroll said. "They just wanted to get better and they just did; they finally got better.
"They believed in themselves and it was amazing — an amazing run," Carroll said
VASJ is returning to the state tournament for the first time since 2008. The Vikings won four state championships in the early 1990s, the last coming in 1995. It's their 12th trip to Columbus.
"That is a great basketball team," Carroll said. "They execute everything they've got — run the floor, shoot the basketball [well]."
The Eagles were in trouble almost immediately as Demonte Flannigan dunked for the game's first points before 10 seconds had expired.
The lead was 7-0 when Darien Townsend and Jayquan Yanno ignited the Eagles' fans with a 3-pointer apiece.
The Vikings began running and gunning, pressing the Eagles into giveaways to open up a 23-14 lead after the first quarter.
The game deteriorated from there. The Eagles were limited to two baskets in each of the second and third quarters as VASJ opened up a commanding 69-25 advantage.
Carroll agreed the Vikings could not have started much better.
"And we didn't help it either; we got out of whack," Carroll said. "We were expecting something and we didn't get the switch on the back door.
"But that happens," Carroll said. "We just kind of got away from what we wanted to do — granted, they had a lot to do with that."
Flannigan led the Vikings with 22 points, Duane Gibson scored 16, Brian Parker 13 and Simon Texidor 11.
VASJ coach Babe Kwasniak had his starters out by the end of the third quarter.
Carroll, Youngstown Christian's athletic director, was extremely pleased with how supportive the Eagles' fans were, especially in the second half.
"The fans were the best," Carroll said. "They were cheering us on — God bless them. I can't tell you how exciting it was that they were here — unbelievable."
Gonda said the Eagles never felt comfortable.
"In the first half, we were out of control," said Gonda, adding that preparing was all but impossible.
"We just couldn't simulate their height and speed," Gonda said. "But we never gave up."
Williams led the Eagles with 15 points — all but two came in the final quarter. Yanno's 11 points included three 3-pointers.