GREEN Like a great season of your favorite TV show, the 2019-20 campaign is setting up for a memorable finish for the Green Bulldogs.
At 17-2 overall clinching the Federal League title with a victory against Jackson on Feb. 7, head coach Mark Kinsley's squad has put itself in prime position to add another trophy or two to its collection. In place of zombies, White Walkers or epic clashes with super villains, this final stretch of the season not only featured the conclusion of a league title chase but now a quest to defend Green's district title of one year ago.
An important piece of the plot setting up the final stretch came on the final day of January, when Green earned a 50-43 win over another pack of Bulldogs from Canton McKinley. It came in front of a packed gym and with the kind of intensity normally reserved for the postseason.
"We have had a number of big games at Green over the years. It started with Tallmadge, Copley and Wadsworth when we were playing in the Suburban League (and) in our undefeated season, we had a packed gym vs. Massillon in our sectional final game," Kinsley said. "We had a full house last year versus Jackson. The McKinley game on Friday ranks near the top for a big game environment. It was just an awesome experience for both teams."
The win served multiple purposes. The first and most obvious was to break a tie atop the league standings, handing McKinley its second league loss. Beyond that, it avenged one of Green's two losses to date, earlier in the season at McKinley.
It also prevented Green from losing back-to-back games for the first time all season, as their previous game was a three-point loss to local parochial power St. Vincent-St. Mary, a team that previously lost by just three points in a nationally noticed game against a Sierra Canyon (Calif.) team that features the sons of both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The win also featured the rare occurrence of two state-ranked league foes playing, as Green entered the game ranked eighth in the Associated Press Division I state poll and McKinley ninth. Green ended up finishing No. 6 in the final state AP poll, while McKinley finished 11th.
Add in the fact that the two rivals could play again in the postseason and the implications were immense, a fact not lost on Green.
"Our first goal this season is to win the Federal League championship. We knew that we had to win this game for us to control our own destiny in the league race," Kinsley said.
All season long, experience has been the calling card for Green, as Kinsley has routinely pointed to his four fourth-year varsity players in seniors Ryan Smith, Donovan O'Neil, Shea Simmer and Garrison Keeslar, as well as have a third-year varsity player Alex Casper, as providing leadership for a team that has depth with second-year varsity players Nathan Smith and Trey Martin and has proven to have depth with first-year varsity players in Andrew Micale and Zack Oddo.
In fact, Oddo has turned in some big games for the Bulldogs, portending well for the future beyond this season. Still, it's the seniors who lead the charge.
"Our seniors' leadership and unselfish has been outstanding this year," Kinsley said. "They have accepted our younger players and they put winning above their personal stats. We couldn't ask for a better group of young men to represent Green High School and the basketball program."
Their experience has been necessary against a schedule Kinsley believes is the most difficult he's had in his two-plus decades on the bench at the school. Along with league games against McKinley, GlenOak, Jackson and the like, non-league contests against Solon, Boardman and St. Vincent-St. Mary have been good tests ahead of the postseason.
However, the degree of difficulty and pressure will only increase from here on out as every game factors into either the league race or could be the final one for the team on the wrong side of the final score.
Making a long tournament run last season has the Bulldogs, which are the No. 1 seed in the Canton District tournament and await the winner of No. 8 Perry and No. 9 Dover in the first round, both confident and motivated to see how far they can go this time around.
"With the experience of reaching the regional final last season, we feel like this year's team can make a similar run," Kinsley noted. "We made a concerted effort to get stronger in the offseason and we feel that our defense and rebounding will give us a chance each night to win the game."
In other words, get your favorite snack and grab a good seat, because this season is teed up perfectly for what promises to be a home stretch to remember.