HARTVILLE Fresh off their biggest win of the season, the Lake Center Christian Tigers have set themselves up to chase history.
Now the question is whether they can continue that momentum and ride it all the way to the first Portage Trail Conference County Division boys basketball title in school history. Head coach Ryan McGonagle said heading into last week’s matchup with previously unbeaten Crestwood that his squad was eager to face the Red Devils and thanks to a four-point win, LCC emerged from the game with an inside track on a league championship even though there’s a long way to go before the end of the season.
“Our guys are really excited and they’ve really bought into one thing, talking about doing something that has never been done at Lake Center and that’s winning a league title,” McGonagle said.
If that goal is to be attained, it will hinge heavily on the team’s two leading scorers, juniors Payton Triplett and Adam Nowak, who have combined to lead the team in points in every game so far this season.
Double-doubles have become the norm for the duo, who are part of a lineup that doesn’t have overwhelming size at any position, but does feature four players 6-foot-2 or taller and good length. Having those long arms and not being at a significant size disadvantage against most teams has helped the Tigers, but McGonagle also knows that in order to emerge as a legitimate championship team, they must clean things up on the offensive end and overcome their lack of a 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 post player with a united approach to rebounding.
“The major area for us to improve and be the best team we can be is to cut down on turnovers,” McGonagle said. “We have to value the ball, take care of the basketball and cut down turnovers. We also have to rebound as a team.”
Now in their second season under McGonagle, the Tigers have begun to get more comfortable in his system and that in turn has allowed players to settle in and play without having to think through as much in order to do what they’re supposed to do.
The Crestwood game yielded not just a 63-59 win, but served as confirmation that LCC could hang with the best teams in the league and with more games against the likes of reigning league champion Mogadore and Valley Christian ahead, there will be other tests.
“One thing our guys have grown in is that they want to be challenged and to take on those challenges,” McGonagle said. “They’re excited to play Mogadore after they went undefeated in the league last year and to go out to Valley Christian and try to make a statement.”
The statement games stand alongside some tough non-league contests against larger schools such as Cardinal Mooney and Tuslaw, both of whom topped the Tigers to give them two of their three losses to date, but the coaching staff has no regrets about constructing a difficult schedule outside of the PTC.
If LCC can learn from the defeats and raise its game to meet the level of competition in such contests, it bodes well for the Division IV sectional and district tournaments as well. Preparing for the postseason is a priority above simply piling up wins with a potentially easier non-league schedule, so a double-digit loss to Mooney was both disappointing, but also part of the process of getting ready for the tournament.
Going forward, the Tigers have their eyes on taking what they saw in the Mooney game and working on where they fell short, especially on the defensive end. Allowing 78 points didn’t sit well with anyone on the LCC bench, so finding out how to button up their defense after that game and a 70-61 defeat to Tuslaw is a priority. At 6-3 following the game, the Tigers are in a solid position for the rest of the year, but know they need to up their game defensively.
“In our defensive system, we really try to pressure the basketball and when we do that, we’re really good defensively,” McGonagle said. “We try to make opponents take tough shots and we just need to have more consistency within our defensive system. We do it at times and when we do it, we’re a very good team.”
Being that good team on a more regular basis looks to be a determining factor for where the season goes from here for LCC. They’ve proven themselves capable of taking down top rivals and in the process, flashed the ability needed to go where the program has never been before. To complete the journey, they’ll have to take more steps forward than steps back the rest of the way because in a closely contested PTC County race, there isn’t much margin for error.
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