LAKE TWP. The Federal League boys basketball lead has changed hands this season nearly as often as a coveted gift card at a white elephant Christmas gift exchange.
Lake surged out to an early lead and was the last unbeaten team in league play, only to have a fast-rising Green team elbow its way into first place with impressive wins over Canton McKinley, Jackson and Lake.
Just when it looked like the race could be a two-team affair down the stretch, a Jackson team that went 2-2 in its first four league games went on a seven-game winning streak anchored by a stalwart defense that allowed 43.2 points per game in going 7-0 to vault first place entering the last week of the season.
As the final week of the league season unfolds, Jackson, Lake and Green are within a game of one another and veteran Lake head coach Tom McBride and his team know full well what’s on the line.
"Emotions are running high … we talked after the Jackson game we lost that we still have a chance to control on destiny," McBride said. "Then you had McKinley over green, Jackson over Green and we were able to bounce back. All you can ask is to control your own destiny and if you do that, then we either rise above or it wasn’t in the cards for us."
The irony is that in a season of chaos, the league race could well come down to the same decisive contest that has played a huge role in deciding so many recent league championships: Lake versus Jackson.
The two teams have battled in the regular season and postseason through the years and after Jackson scored a 58-40 win earlier this season, the Blue Streaks get their shot at revenge Friday night at home. Win and Lake earns at least a share of the title with Jackson - though if Green wins too, the three teams will split the title.
Winning that game will mean battling through what should be a defensive quagmire on both ends, one in which Jackson is expected to focus a lot of energy on stopping Lake’s leading scorer, junior guard Jake Maranvile. Should that happen, the Blue Streaks will need contributions from the rest of their lineup in order to emerge victorious.
"We need Cam Casey, who’s really been an unsung hero for us, an Jeremy Brady, who has stepped up and been very aggressive for us," McBride said. "Everyone knows Jake, but these guys can make plays too."
Another contributor who has opened eyes for Lake this season is Nick Novaka, who has shown himself to be a solid defender for a team that hangs its hat on its defensive ability.
The current edition of the Blue Streaks also has the support of many former players who not only show up in the stands at games, but also keep in touch with McBride and spend time at practices giving advice to the players and trying to help the program for which they once played.
"To me, that’s the best part of coaching is having guys like that coming back and talking to our guys and wanting to help out," McBride said. "I’ve had my son Joe, Chandler (Vaudrin), Mitch Spotleson and others. They come to home games, they stick around and when guys on our team see guys playing good basketball at Division II level, I think that’s encouraging for them."
Getting through Jackson is merely the first big challenge awaiting Lake in the coming weeks. A district bracket with the Polar Bears, Wooster, Dover, Canfield and others will be a grind and whoever survives will go through a series of tough games in the process. That’s why a league-title-deciding game against Jackson should be an excellent indicator of where Lake stands entering the tournament.
"We’ve got to find a way to handle their physicality. In second half last time, guys like (Spencer) Stanton, (Jaret) Plallotta and (Ben) Hyde, their physicality got to us," McBride said. "We have to make sure we’re intelligent in the decisions we make defensively and can’t have some of our guys picking up key fouls. That hurt us the first time and we got a little fatigued and got sloppy."
With the margin for error shrinking more with each step closer to the end of the season and the Federal League title still up for grabs, there’s never been a better time to iron out the kinks and play the sort of mistake-free basketball that earns wins in March.
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