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Warren JFK chasing history in playoffs

Staff file photo / Brian Yauger. Warren JFK freshman Didi Ryan puts up a shot in the lane during a game earlier this season. Ryan has averaged 13.3 points and 4.8 assists per game for the Eagles.

WARREN — The many banners hanging in the gymnasium of Warren John F. Kennedy High School tells the tale of an athletic program rich in tradition and success.

Numerous sports are recognized for their accomplishments, which include district, regional and state championships.

The banner recognizing the girls basketball program is noticeably void of any such honors.

However, the Kennedy faithful are optimistic that this could be the year for the banner to get a facelift.

After finishing its regular season with a 15-6 record, JFK began its tournament journey on Wednesday with a 67-12 home win over Leetonia. Today, the Eagles (16-6) will host Akron Our Lady of the Elms (9-11) in a sectional final. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m.

“It’s been our goal out of the gate to win a district title,” said first-year coach Marc Morgan. “We entered the season with a lot of unknowns. But we also knew that we had a group of very talented girls who were very eager to put in the time and effort.

“How quickly would this group of girls gel into one unit? How quickly would this young group adapt to playing varsity ball and adapt to playing in big games? Those were questions we were asking ourselves back in November. We’re still working on getting everything right on a consistent basis, but this group has come a long way.”

In fact, when Morgan took over the program last June, he was faced with a lot more questions than answers. Three would-be returning starters transferred to other schools, and a fourth opted not to play basketball this year.

Morgan was inheriting a team that suddenly lacked any varsity experience with the exception of Ava Darney. And while Darney is a senior, she was forced to sit out the second half of her junior year after transferring to JFK from Jackson-Milton.

“It was like starting over for all of us, in some ways it was like starting a new program from scratch,” Morgan said. “I didn’t know how good we could be, but we were all excited to get going.”

Still, the Eagles raced off to a 10-2 start, losing only to Canton McKinley and Canton Central Catholic during the stretch. There were victories over the likes of Badger (20-2) and United (15-8).

“We played United during the Christmas break, we went to their place when they were 7-1 and it was a big game played in a great atmosphere and we scored 85 points,” Morgan said. “It was at that point of the season where I think these girls learned a lot about themselves. They realized they had what it takes to compete against quality teams. They had a shot at a pretty memorable season. It’s still just a matter of putting things together on a consistent basis.”

The Eagles went 5-4 in their final 10 regular season games, losing to Boardman and dropping a pair of games to Rootstown (20-2), They also dropped a rematch to Badger.

“Even today, we’re still growing as a team,” Morgan said. “We’ve come such a long way from the beginning of the year. But we’re still learning how to play in big game situations. For nearly all of these girls, the tournament is their first postseason experience. That is something you can’t practice or prepare for.”

Darney is not only providing some much-needed senior leadership, but she is also producing on the court. She is averaging a team-high 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Earlier this month, she scored her 1,000th career point.

“Ava does all the little things, she’s the consummate worker,” Morgan said. “She’s in here before I get here, she’s here after I leave. She stays and shoots after games. She’s that kid that wants to get better, that wants the team to get better.

“There are times where I want her to be more selfish. I want her to have that killer attitude, but she’s all about getting her teammates involved and being a team player. She’s an incredible leader. She’s the blueprint of the program.”

Freshman point guard Didi Ryan is averaging 13.3 points and a team-high 4.8 assists per game.

“Having the presence and having the ability to run the show as a freshman is a huge task, and Didi has done an incredible job at being the quarterback of this team,” Morgan said. “She has made great strides — some of the things she’s done are so beyond a freshman-year player. The ceiling for Didi is so high. She brings energy on both ends of the court that is typical of a veteran who has been playing at this level for a couple of years.”

This past fall, Ryan earned All-Ohio First-team status in soccer. She insists the transition to the high school game hasn’t been as easy as it sometimes looks.

“Taking that step from eighth grade to varsity was pretty nerve-wracking and it took some time to adjust,” Ryan said. “I was lucky that I was surrounded by great coaches and teammates who were really supportive. They really helped get me through the process. I feel much more confident now. I’m seeing the floor better. I’m reading my teammates differently than I was a couple of months ago. We’re all working really well together as a team.”

Sophomore Gianna Pompelia (12.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) has provided the Eagles with multiple 20-plus point performances throughout the course of the season.

“Gianna has been the consummate offensive go-getter, she is college material,” Morgan said. “She’s our slasher, our get it and get it to the basket kid. Teams have to decide whether to match up with her with a big, or put a guard on her, and either way she’s tough to defend.”

Morgan noted that in Kennedy’s season-ending loss to Rootstown, Pompelia picked up two fouls in the very early stages of the game. Without Pompelia on the court, the Eagles fell behind early and never recovered.

“The dynamic of Ava, Didi and Gianna on the court together provide us with so many options and opportunities,” Morgan said. “When those three are on the court together and clicking, we could be tough to stop.”

Not only would a district title be a first for Kennedy, but it would also give the Eagles 19 wins. The current school record for wins in a season is 18.

With such a young roster, the future of the program appears to look bright. Darney says she is excited “to be part of the foundation of something special.” Still, she says the sole focus is on the present.

“It’s always been my dream and my goal to win a district title,” Darney said. “We’ve improved game by game, and I think we’re still coming together as a team. The thing is, even in our losses I feel like we came out of those games a better team because we learned in the process. We’ve played and practiced all season long for this moment.”

The winner of today’s game will face either Cornerstone Christian or East Palestine next Wednesday at Mineral Ridge in a district semifinal.

Have an interesting story? Contact the Sports Department, at sports@tribtoday.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribChronSports.

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