By Ryan Buck
When longtime Lowellville girls basketball coach Tony Matisi took over the South Range program this past summer, he thought his role was to simply coach the sport he loves.
Nothing during contract negotiations ever mentioned teaching a foreign language.
“A ton of growing pains,” Matisi said by phone Tuesday. “From terminology to what you’ve been doing for so long with the same kids for so long, you think it’s like that everywhere.”
A basketball player and coach all his life who had led seven Rockets teams to district titles while compiling 350 career wins, it had been a long time since he was taking instead of giving lessons.
“There’s a term we have called the dead spot,” Matisi said, referring to spots on the court along the baseline and between the foul lane and 3-point line susceptible to passing lanes in a zone defense (Thank you, hooptactics.com). “They called it short corner. I called it the dead spot. It’s funny how you think basketball is simple, but little things like that — it took a while for us and for them.”
Nine months later, Matisi has led the Raiders (23-3) to a Division III district title, their first in 16 years, and a berth in tonight’s regional semifinal with Smithville. He and his team have come a long way since the revered coach led a new staff of former players Allison Dimoff and Dana Matthews and close coaching friend Mike Kollar into the school for the first time. His favorite “Welcome to South Range” moment gave him a positive outlook for his new venture.
“The kids, how receptive they were from day one,” he said of a young Raiders team that finished the 2013 season at 13-11. “I can still remember walking into the cafeteria for our first meeting and laying out the summer program in May and seeing how positive they were and how badly they wanted to win. That would be at the top.”
He and his staff went right to work, saying, “Our summer was tough, but the thing was even from day one we preached and stressed, ‘Let’s get better every day.’ I can truly say that every day we did something better and better.”
Then came their district run.
“These last three weeks they understand what we need and what we want,” Matisi said. “We’re playing our best basketball, which is a coach’s dream.”
His players, once strangers, mobbed him after downing Ursuline at Struthers Fieldhouse on Saturday.
“It meant the world,” Matisi said. “It kind of surprised me, but that’s the way they are. When you describe a team, they are truly a team. I can honestly say without a doubt that as long as we win, they don’t care who gets the credit.”
Tonight, both team — led by senior guard Starla Sharp and sophomore guard Morgan Czopur — and coach will venture into unlikely and uncharted territory.
“The last few days I’ve been talking to my boys and my wife,” Matisi said. “‘Why does this feel different?’ Because it is different. I think because of tradition we had at Lowellville, we expected to be there evey year and it was different in that regard. We played well during [this] season, but I don’t know if anyone thought we’d be where we’re at. I think that’s what made it more gratifying.”