It's not often when a high school basketball team takes on the challenge of playing one of the best teams in the area a couple weeks before the start of the state tournament.
That is exactly what the Fitch boys did on Saturday, Feb. 18 when they traveled to Akron to take on Akron City Series champion East. The Dragons entered the game 19-1 and highly positioned in the state rankings. Yet, the Falcons gave the Dragons everything they could possibly handle before finally succumbing, 49-48.
The Falcons got great play over the first 16 minutes winning the first two periods 13-10 and 14-12 respectively to own a 27-22 halftime advantage. East entered the third period a little stunned that the upstart visitors from Austintown had such a fabulous first half and made sure to take back control of the game. The Red Dragons went on a 16-8 run in the third to jump into the lead. Although Fitch won the fourth period by two points, the Dragons got the decision.
"We had two chances with five seconds left," stated Fitch head coach Brian Beany, "but we missed two shots. We missed some shots we usually make."
Two Falcons who haven't missed many shots all year are Dan Chepke and Will Mahone. That terrific twosome kept the Falcons fighting with their sixth straight games of 10-plus points. Chepke scored 18 points including both of Fitch's three-pointers while Mahone made 12 points. Some may say that it's a bad idea for a team to only have a pair of players do most of the scoring, but coach Beany argues against that theory.
"That's the way it's been all year," said the coach. "Teams know they have to stop our two-headed monster and nobody has been able to shut down both of them."
While Chepke and Mahone have mastered the art of point gathering, some other Falcons are doing other things favorably.
"There are other kids who are starting to contribute," Beany mentioned. "Kids like Nick Williams, Jesse Driver and Trevor Yacovone are doing other things well. If we can get our points from Will and Dan and one of these other kids score in double digits we'll be OK. It's not like we are going to score in the 80s anyway."
With high-scoring games out of the equation, coach Beany knows his boys will have to play tight defense when the tournament begins. That is why a warm-up with a great offensive team like Akron East, as well as a nice 59-47 victory over 11-win Marlington four night earlier, before the playoffs was well scheduled by the Falcons' brain trust.
"It was a good tournament precursor," Beany said.
After a pause, Beany chuckled then added, "If I would have known (East) was going to be sixth ranked however, we may have changed our minds."
There will be no chance to change what the Falcons will encounter in the next couple of weeks. On Feb. 21, Fitch will host Senior Night when Boardman comes to Austintown. With only three wins, the Spartans don't pose the threat either of Fitch's prior two opponents did and certainly will not represent the type of talent that awaits it in the tourney. On Feb. 28 in Alliance, eighth-seeded Fitch will meet fifth-seeded Green. Green is a team that Beany believes will be one to run against. That means the coach will attempt to make Green envious of some of his athletes.
"I haven't been able to see much of (Green) yet," said Beany this past weekend. "I think we'll try to go up tempo with them. They equate to Howland, Lakeview or Poland, but bigger. We will try to run like we did against Howland."
If all of that running is successful then Beany's boys will battle second seeded and old Federal League friend Uniontown Lake on March 3. Getting to that point may be possible for the Falcons because coach Beany is beaming about his team right now.
"I like where we're at as a team," he explained. "We are beginning to click and we are gelling. I think we can make some noise and other people I have talked to think so too."