By Tom Williams
The luck of the Irish did not follow this year’s Ursuline High School boys basketball team to Stark County.
Despite Thursday’s 76-52 loss to Cleveland Central Catholic in the Division II regional semifinal at Canton Civic Center, Irish coach Keith Gunther said this year’s squad was perhaps the most pleasant surprise in his 14 seasons.
“When we had this team in the summer, if you had told me we were going to win the district, I’d have told you that was a far-fetched deal,” Gunther said. “For us to lose three major kids like that and for these kids to get [another division title], I was amazed.
“I’ll be honest with you — this is one of the least-talented groups that we’ve had, but their effort and their attitude, they way they worked got them to where we were able to win our fourth district in a row.”
In the offseason, three players left the Irish program (brothers Mark and Chris Hughes transferred to Warren Harding, Armon Nasseri went to Spire Institute).
Gunther admitted he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue.
“Those were three major losses,” said Gunther who was named the Northeast Inland co-coach of the year last week. “For about an hour I thought with kids leaving, I thought, ‘Man, maybe this is my time to step down.’
“But then about 20 minutes later I said, ‘Suck it up and go make the kids you’ve got better.’”
Gunther was pleased with how his seniors — Dakota Hobbs, Anthony Howell, Vince Venzeio, Trace Leonard, Anise Algahmee, Dawalyn Washington and Jordan Feleti — took charge.
“Trace, Anthony, Dakota, Anise — they just decided they were going to be good,” Gunther said.
Hobbs, who scored 14 points, said the Irish “got together at the beginning of the season and said we’re not going to let the loss of those three players affect us and stop us from achieving our full potential.”
The Ironmen (19-7) presented the Irish (19-8) with a buzzsaw they couldn’t penetrate. At halftime, Cleveland Central Catholic led 35-22. The game didn’t get better in the third quarter as the Ironmen seized control with a 14-5 run.
“We didn’t play good defense coming out of the half,” Hobbs said. ““They are a very athletic team. They are very good.
“We knew we would have to play really well to beat them. We turned the ball over too much and gave them easy points.”
Alex Heath scored 19 points to lead the Ironmen. Tyler Golphin scored 11 while Dion Ivory, Dyshawn Jackson and Miryne Thomas each had eight.
Howell, who had 17 points and nine rebounds, said the Ironmen “were very fast. Once you get down to a team like that, it’s hard to come back. They had energy the whole game.”
Gunther also had high praise for the Ironmen.
“When I watched film, I knew it would be tough for us to play with them — their height, their size, their quickness,” Gunther said. “They gave us problems with their pressure.”
Luck was not with the Irish early.
“In the first quarter, if we could have made shots, we might have changed their mindset, but once we started turning it over, they started getting easy buckets,” Gunther said.
Sophomore Devan Keevey and Feleti came off the bench to score eight apiece for the Irish.
“We had a great season,” said Howell, who wore an Ursuline shirt that said 2 a.m. “We lost transfers, but that didn’t affect us. We just got the next person to step up, and I think we did it very well.”
Hobbs said the “next man” philosophy inspired the 2 a.m. mantra.
“We practiced ... at 2 a.m. and let it carry us,” Hobbs said. “All that hard work paid off for us.”