Three area teams claimed the top seed in their respective districts this season. Two are looking for their second regional appearance in as many years and the third is looking for its first district title in school history.
Both Chaney and Springfield took the top seeds in their respective districts, the Division II Youngstown District for the Cowboys and the Division III Salem District for the Tigers.
Mathews, seeking its first district title in school history, claimed the top seed in the Division IV Orwell District.
Vienna High School reached the state semifinals in 1955 before merging with Fowler to become Mathews, but the school hasn’t made it past the district stage post-merger.
They were on the brink of a district title last season, going on a run as the 12th seed beating their first three matchups by a combined seven points, but fell to league rival Bristol in the district finals.
The Mustangs are back this time as the No. 1 seed and have a senior core determined to make history. They already have after snapping a decade-long Northeast Athletic Conference championship streak held by Bristol.
In celebration, the team cut the nets down after the final regular season game. Mustangs coach Mike Weymer, a 2005 graduate of Mathews, is normally reserved on the sidelines, but as he climbed the ladder to cut the final piece of net, you could see a smile begin to form.
“I’ve only ever wanted to cut a net down in that gym since I was about 15,” he said.
But they aren’t done yet.
The one-loss Mustangs open their tournament with a game against league rival Bloomfield. If there’s no upsets on the bracket, Mathews will wind up facing Bristol for a third time, this time in the district semifinals. While the challenge is tough, the Mustangs are excited to get tested this year in the tournament.
“It’s a tough road,” Weymer said. “We beat Bristol twice (in the regular season). That’s going to be a real tough game. Then if we win, we have potentially JFK after that. Those are two really, really good teams, championship programs, teams that are accustomed to being there. Our kids, they expect to win too. We’re excited to get the opportunity to advance to see where we measure up with some of those guys.”
Springfield’s coach Jeff Brink also is coaching at his alma mater. Brink, in his first year back with the Tigers, guided them to a 21-1 record, the team’s only loss coming to LaBrae in the season finale.
“It’s been tremendous getting a chance to come home and to be back at my alma mater,” Brink said. “I feel very fortunate to walk in with such a great group of seniors. They’re just phenomenal young men.”
Springfield reached the regional stage last season and used that as a springboard to further improve this year. The goals are high, but the team is confident they can be reached.
The offense was already there, so the Tigers put a heavy emphasis on defense this year.
“I think that we really strived to be a better defensive team,” Brink said. “We have offensive talent. I mean, Alex (Rothwell), Adam (Wharry) and Beau (Brungard) all played last year. They were all very successful. They had a team that went to regionals, so we’re just trying to build upon what they had. … We’ve gotten great minutes from the underclassmen as well, but I think the seniors’ unselfish play (has been key).
“These guys grew up together, they love each other, they’ve played their whole lives together. They’re definitely committed to trying to be as good and as successful as they possibly can be. They’ve got high aspirations and goals and I think that’s something that they’re pushing to achieve.”
The 21-1 Tigers face off against the 1-21 Crestwood Red Devils in the opening round of the tournament. While a 1-21 record isn’t impressive, the Red Devils have been battle-tested all year and were just a few points away from wins in a large portion of their games.
Don’t expect the Tigers to be looking past Crestwood.
“I think they’re a very underrated team,” Brink said. “A lot of teams didn’t give them a high vote because of their record, but they’re much better than the record. I’m friends with coach (Josh) Jakacki and he’s a great coach. They’re going to be well prepared. It’s going to be a lot more difficult (of) a task than some people think just by looking at it on paper.
“For us it’s a situation of, we don’t want to ever look ahead and go, ‘Well, this is assumed to be a W’, we’re in a position where we want to make sure we take care of business. It’s a cliche to be honest, we all know that. When people say one day at a time, one game at a time, but when you get into the tournament play, anything could happen.”
Other districts of interest consist of the Division III Warren District with LaBrae and No. 2 seed Campbell, the Division II Ashtabula District with West Branch, Howland, Struthers and Ursuline and the Division IV Struthers district with Heartland Christian and second-seeded Lowellville.
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