It’s that time of the year again for the Ursuline Fighting Irish. It’s the fourth time in as many years that the boys basketball team has earned a spot in the regional tournament.
“It feels amazing,” Ursuline senior Dakota Hobbs said after his team’s 70-33 thrashing of Salem in a district final. “There’s nothing like it.”
Hobbs and his class have been a staple at the regional tournament during his time. In 2014, the Irish won a regional semifinal 74-56 against Norwayne before falling to Villa Angela-St. Joseph 69-60 in a regional final.
In 2015, Ursuline beat Canton Central Catholic 55-45 in their regional semifinal before falling to VASJ again 66-45 in a regional final.
Last season the Irish moved up to Division II and they fell out in the regional semifinal round, losing 67-52 to St. Vincent-St. Mary.
But few teams can say they’ve had the run of four consecutive district titles and Ursuline head coach Keith Gunther said that has a lot to do with how his team schedules.
By being an independent, the Irish have a lot more flexibility when scheduling. Instead of being forced to play half the teams on their schedule, Gunther can pick and choose who to go up against.
“I think [our schedule] prepares us for the tournament,” Gunther said. “I think our athletic director understands, since he’s a state winner, how you have to prepare for districts.
“When you’re an independent you don’t have to prepare for a league so you can go out and play multiple teams. We can travel and play top-level teams. It makes you better.”
The Irish (19-7) played a tough schedule that included four tournaments and games against bigger, successful programs like Akron Hoban, Massillon, Mentor Lake Catholic, Uniontown Lake and SVSM.
“We had seven losses [in the regular season] but those losses are probably the reason we’re here today because we learned a lot from them,” Gunther said.
Now that the district hurdle has been cleared once again, Gunther needs his team to play at a higher level that the regional tournament demands. Ursuline opens against Cleveland Central Catholic (17-8) in a regional semifinal at 6:15 tonight at the Canton Memorial Civic Center.
“The great thing for us is we’ve played [great teams],” Gunther said. “It’s not like we haven’t seen that kind of talent. We’ll see if our guys can step up to that kind of level if they want to and have a chance to win. The issue is you’ve got to step up. It’s another level.”
If Ursuline is to flourish this year in the regional tournament, the intensity level that was shown early in its district final will likely need to be repeated.
“They just got after it,” Salem’s Jon Gerace said after the Quakers fell to Ursuline. “They were after every loose ball. They were up in your face up tight. They did everything right.”
Individually, Anthony Howell will also likely need to make his presence known if Ursuline is to fight for a spot at state.
“There was a point in the year when I told Anthony he was the best big man I’ve coached,” Gunther said. “He was getting like 25 and 16. He’s just so big and mobile.”
No matter the result, expect to see similar schedules for Ursuline for years to come.
“I love [being independent],” Gunther said. “I wouldn’t want to apply in a league.”