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Fitch battles in overtime loss to Struthers

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes
Fitch sophomore DeShawn Vaughn Jr. blocks a Dante Colarossi shot during the second half Tuesday evening, Vaughn scored 20 points as well in the losing effort.

STRUTHERS — In many regards, this year’s iteration of the Struthers Wildcats doesn’t carry over many pieces from the historic roster they fielded on the hardwood last winter.

In just as many regards, that doesn’t matter.

Michael Wernicki’s Wildcats have a fighting character that has propelled them to a fairly successful campaign to date, with only seniors Ronnie Leonard and Sal Shaffer returning from last season as major contributors.

With the winter winds slowly fading away, playoff basketball is coming closer and closer into reaching distance, a 77-75 overtime victory over the visiting Austintown Fitch Falcons Tuesday night isn’t exactly how you’d draw up a contest where the home Wildcats (14-6) led a majority of the evening. But, the close games is what Struthers thrives in.

“When we’ve been down, ideally as a coach you don’t want to put yourself in that position, but this group has found a way, when our backs are against the wall, they’ve stayed poised,” coach Michael Wernicki said. “They’ve made just enough plays, but that doesn’t win you games in the tournament.

“The tournament is a lot different, but it’s been a fun group to coach. I’m very proud of where they are and how far they’ve come, and hopefully we can keep it going. This group is a special group, they can accomplish whatever they want, but this is a good basketball team.”

Early signs pointed toward a potentially sizable Wildcats win, leading by ten at halftime, and at the end of the third, but the Falcons, who are also all too familiar with close contests, flexed with mid-range and three-point muscle. Guards Allen Underwood and DeShawn Vaugnh Jr. exhibited dynamic prowess on the offensive end of the floor, scoring a game-high 28 and 20 points respectively.

After not holding a lead since a Carter Owens three made it 5-4 Fitch in the opening minutes of the game, Vaughn buried a massive three with 55 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put his team up 63-62. Struthers senior Dante Colorissi split an ensuing pair at the charity stripe, setting up a Falcons opportunity to win, but a shot attempt fell short.

In overtime, both teams exchanged blows, but the critical play of the evening came after Shaffer missed the back end of a pair of free throws and the rebound fell into the hands of junior Chance Laczko, who shot and converted a three, putting the Wildcats up 76-74, the decisive play of the evening in the final moments of overtime.

“It took coach to start yelling at us at first, and then after that we kinda just stuck together,” Shaffer said about closing the game out. “We kinda got in a huddle with like five minutes left in the fourth quarter, we talked for a second and just decided that we have to keep our heads in it and keep going.

“As soon as you’re at the line and it comes down, everything is hitting you at once. You got to hit this, you gotta hit this, everyone is harping on you, when you’re at the line, as soon as you miss, you just fall with, nothing else to go with it, and you got to get your head back in and make that second one and just play through everything else.”

Shaffer was 7-11 from the line, scoring 21 points total, with his team going 22-35 on free throws as a whole, but finding that one bucket when they really needed it.

For Leonard, scoring 17, matchups like the one Tuesday evening reflects the character of a team more than anything, especially one still vying for an Northeast-8 title later this week after having to form chemistry on a nearly new roster.

“When we have four of five guys with double-digits, it’s hard to beat us,” Leonard said. “We lost a lot of guys, so we have to rebuild everything, not a lot of guys played with each other last year, so all summer we stayed together and built chemistry together.

“We can be pretty good, if we stay together and do what we need to do everyday, we could be pretty good.”

Colarossi ended with 14, along with junior Nick Delgratta’s 12, and Laczko’s 10.

For Fitch, walking away empty handed isn’t the ideal situation, but being able to square up against a Struthers team that features plenty of size, fielding three players that measure 6-foot-6 or taller, a shifty Falcons team could still go home knowing they had a chance.

“We’re always at a size differential with every team we play, but our kids still bust their butts, it doesn’t matter if we’re four inches smaller, we’re still going to go out there and battle,” said coach Brian Beany. “We are a very good 6-14 team, I don’t give a rat’s butt about the record, because I know that we’ve been in so many close games, sometimes we have hard matchups in the paint against the other size.

“But, I give my kids all the credit, they battled and that’s all you could ask of them at that point, fun game, insane game, fans enjoyed it, I’ll take the effort, it was a great high school game.”

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