While many roundball enthusiasts are looking forward with excitement to the final rounds of the March Madness college basketball tournament, many in the Mahoning Valley are looking back with pride at an uplifting season of slam-dunk play on high school courts.
Although the Valley has no horses in the race for state championships this season, many boys and girls basketball teams among dozens in our region secured berths in district and regional tournaments by demonstrating superlative skills. In so doing, they merit recognition for bringing pride to themselves, their schools and their communities.
Warren John F. Kennedy High School, fresh off a 2016 state football championship, emerged as the last boys team standing from the Valley in regional finals. On Friday night, Lutheran East edged the JFK Eagles 67-64 to deny the school a return trip to Columbus. But the Eagles have no reason to hang their heads in shame. Friday’s loss marked the farthest that Youngstown Diocese high school had advanced in postseason play in 32 years.
Also standing out this season has been Ursuline High, a perennial powerhouse in basketball and football. The Irish boys and girls squads both handily won district titles. The boys fell to Cleveland Central Catholic in a regional tournament last week. But that loss did nothing to detract from the grit and resilience they exhibited in defeating much larger schools and programs throughout the 2016-17 season including Austintown Fitch, Mentor Lake Catholic and Erie Cathedral Prep.
For their part, the Ursuline girls secured the district championship with decisive and spirited wins over archrival Cardinal Mooney and undefeated Columbiana.
For those looking for one of the season’s strongest comeback stories, look no farther than Boardman High. Although the Uniontown Lake squad upended the Spartans in the district tournament, Boardman brought a renewed energy and top-quality play to nearly each and every game this season. The Spartans advanced to the district tournament for the first time in 16 years, and its impressive 19-5 season record stands as the best there in 30 years.
Other boys teams that displayed talented athleticism in tournament play included Warren Harding, LaBrae, Poland, McDonald and Salem.
In other girls basketball laurels, West Branch rode high and mighty all season, amassing an amazing 23-game winning streak before falling in the regional final. Elsewhere, the soaring Blue Jays of Jackson-Milton advanced to the regional final game for the first time in the history of that school’s girls basketball program.
Collectively, those teams brought high-energy enthusiasm and excitement into the confines of gyms and arenas. They also brought new sources of hometown pride for their communities.
As Boardman boys coach Pat Birch said of his team’s stellar season, “This team brought the student body and community together all season, and that was great to see.”
For most all involved, the season produced constructive gains. For players, the game built respect, loyalty, responsibility, self-discipline, sportsmanship and cooperation. For schools, the game built revenue for athletic and other programs while helping to cement school spirit. For communities, it built identity and cohesiveness.
We therefore salute the talent, teamwork and tenacity of the players and their coaches as they take a deserved timeout to savor their achievements.