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Newton Falls succeeding with new core

Tigers face Kirtland tonight in playoff tilt

Staff file photo / Preston Byers Newton Falls’ Jabriel Rufai (23) looks to pass the ball during the Tigers’ game against Campbell on Feb. 23.

“Win ugly” has been the battle cry of the Newton Falls boys basketball team throughout the course of the 2023-24 season.

In fact, the motto was adopted early last summer, and with good reason. The Tigers lost their top six scorers from last year’s 17-6 squad, including all five starters. Their seventh-leading scorer from a year ago (Landon McGregor) tore his ACL in the last game of the season and was a question mark entering this year.

There were plenty of other question marks and not a lot of definite answers in the months leading up to the start of the season.

“We were almost starting over, but I loved how hard we competed and how we fought all throughout the summer,” Tigers coach Roy Sembach said. “We weren’t super skilled, but we were finding ways to win games. We might score on the fourth shot after getting three offensive rebounds. The diving for loose balls and the dedication to defense gave us hope.

“We just developed a theme that we were going to find a way to win. It may not be pretty, but we were going to do whatever it takes to come out on top.”

Early on, the Tigers had the “ugly” part down pat. Newton Falls lost its season opener to Ravenna and a three-game losing streak put the Tigers at 2-4 six games into the schedule.

However, since a 51-38 loss to Howland back on Dec. 22, the Tigers have been a thing of beauty. They have won 16 of their last 17 games, with the lone setback being a one-point loss at Crestview. Following the sluggish start, they finished the regular season 17-5, the same record as a year ago.

On Tuesday, the Tigers opened tournament play with a 47-37 win over Chippawa. Tonight they will travel to Kirtland to take on the Hornets (16-7) in a Division III sectional final.

In reality, Newton Falls’ quick turnaround should come as no surprise. This year marks the Tigers’ 18th straight winning season. The 8-13 finish in 2006 was their only losing season since 1997.

This year, every Newton Falls team from the seventh grade on up either won a conference title or finished second in league play.

“I’ve had some really great help from the third grade on up,” Sembach said. “My top assistant, Mike Mazanetz, would probably be one of the best head coaches in the area. I have all kinds of really good help that gives us the hope that we can quickly rebuild, even after losing a large senior class.”

Following the loss to Howland, Newton Falls hosted Lakeview, and quickly fell behind 7-0. The Tigers went on to win the game 50-24, starting a nine-game winning streak.

“Early on when our offense wasn’t playing well I think our defensive effort took a hit,” Sembach said. “We were turning the ball over, missing shots, feeling sorry for ourselves.

“After the Howland loss we came back and stressed that we were going to succeed by defending and rebounding, we knew we could do those things. This team rededicated itself to defense, the kids got a taste of varsity ball and things started to fall into place.”

While Newton Falls is scoring right around 50 points per game, it is giving up an average of just 41 points per contest.

The Tigers are led by senior Jabriel Rufai, who leads the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.8 rpg).

“Jabriel has been our best player, he’s 6-foot-5 and can play anywhere on the court,” Sembach said. “He might be our point guard, he might be our off-guard and defensively he might guard the other team’s big guy. He does a little bit of everything, and he’s outstanding at the defensive end.”

Sembach noted that going into the summer, the Tigers were desperately seeking a point guard. Junior Carson Howard filled the void. Howard is second on the team in scoring (9.8 ppg) while leading the team in assists (3.6 per game).

“Carson worked his tail off in the summer, he clearly worked as hard as any player I’ve had,” Sembach said. “In early summer, we knew Carson would play varsity but we didn’t think he would start. By October he was a clear starter at point guard and he solved a ton of our ball-handling problems.”

Junior Cam Huff (9.0 ppg) has been the Tigers’ most accurate shooter.

Senior twins Alex and Zach Stinson along with junior Ethan Powell have been the do-it-all players typically found on a Newton Falls roster.

“Those three players are strong, aggressive kids who just fill the stat sheets with rebounds, deflections, steals, taking charges, things like that,” Sembach said. “They’re not scorers, but they provide a physical presence.”

McGregor, cleared from his injury just before the start of the season, showed continuous progress throughout the season.

“Landon still doesn’t have all the strength in his leg and such, but he provides a ton of poise on the floor, he keeps things calm and he’s strong and aggressive,” Sembach said.

Sembach knows his team (15th-seed) faces an uphill battle tonight with a road game at 10th-seeded Kirtland. The Hornets opened the tournament with an 83-56 win over Rootstown.

“Since our Howland game, we’ve focused all year long on going 1-0,” Sembach said. “We can very easily get beat, Kirtland is a really good team. But we also know that if we play to our potential, we have a shot at a district title.”

“Our goal right now is to go 1-0 in each of our next three games. We’ve taken that approach and for the most part it has paid off.”

Tonight’s winner will face either Lorain Clearview or Fairview next Monday in a District Semifinal game at Wooster High School.

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

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