By DAVE HANNEMAN
Findlay High School’s boys basketball team got an unexpected break this week.
Jim Rucki was determined to make sure it wasn’t a momentum-sapping one.
“They were a little winded today,” Rucki said of the Trojans, who practiced for the first time Wednesday when this week’s polar vortex created Level 3 road conditions that closed businesses, schools and high school gymnasiums.
“It was chilly in here, so we got up and down the floor a lot.”
Upended by Toledo St. John’s last Friday, Findlay rebounded with an impressive win over an undefeated Defiance team on Saturday. Rucki and the Trojans will be looking to build on that victory as they head into another TRAC/WBL weekend.
On Friday, Findlay (8-2, 4-1 TRAC) will travel to Toledo Whitmer (3-6, 2-3) for a Three Rivers Athletic Conference clash with the Panthers. The Trojans return home on Saturday when they host Ottawa-Glandorf (6-3) of the Western Buckeye League in the renewal of the Route 224 Rivalry.
A break now and then in a season that can stretch from the middle of November until the third weekend of March isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We talk all the time about how the Christmas vacation can sort of make or break you,” Rucki said.
“A lot of teams, I think, get worse over the break. They’re practicing at different times, they get out of rhythm, some kids might just lay around all day. If you’re not careful, you can follow up with three or four bad practices in a row and you’re not getting better.”
Rucki credits a veteran group of seniors with keeping the Trojans on track, including returning starters Austin Gutting (12.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.4 apg), Adam Twining (16.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.1 apg), Michael Clark (10.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Braden Miller (4.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg), 6-foot-5 forward Duke Gobrecht and 5-9 guard/wing Nick Kairys.
Junior guard Grant Niswander (6.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) rounds out the starting lineup, with junior Joey Hammond, sophomores Grant McKinniss (2.9 ppg), Trey Buford and Chase Miller and freshman Kyle Nunn contributing as well.
“We have an experienced group that knows how to play together. That’s important,” Rucki said.
“We’ve had good practices and, for the most part, we’ve played pretty well. I think we’re better than we were a couple of weeks ago.”
Still, unexpected breaks, like the one Mother Nature threw at the Trojans this week, can be disruptive.
“We were counting on getting back to our regular schedule this week,” Rucki said.
“We were hoping to tweak a couple of things, add a couple of things, maybe put in some new stuff because we’d have a full week to work on it. But we weren’t able to practice at all Monday or Tuesday, so we’ve had abbreviated preparation for some of the things we wanted to work on going into this game.”
Findlay is 0-4 in TRAC games with Toledo Whitmer, and has lost six straight to the Panthers overall. The largest school in Northwest Ohio, Whitmer has had an incredible run and elite athletes in recent years, including LeRoy Alexander (Nebraska, football), Chris Wormley (Michigan, football), Storm Norton (University of Toledo, football) and most recently, Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin, basketball) and Ricardo Smith (University of Findlay, basketball).
“They have some really good athletes and they play hard, aggressive, defensive basketball,” said Rucki, mentioning players like 6-3 senior wing Jon Ashe, a returning starter, senior guard Chris Parker and, Sam Hickey, a 6-2 sophomore sharpshooter who has been the Panthers top scorer in a number of games.
“They play tough, aggressive man-to-man (defense), which they’ve always done, and they are good on the glass, especially the offensive end. We have to do a good job on the defensive boards.”
Whitmer’s 3-6 record may reflect the program’s graduation losses. Rucki says there’s more to the numbers.
“They’ve played some really good teams,” Rucki said.
“They’ve lost to (Toledo) St. John’s (9-2, 5-0 TRAC), (Toledo) Central Catholic (8-1, 4-0 TRAC), (Sylvania) Southview (6-2), Perrysburg (9-0), Fremont Ross (7-2, 2-2 TRAC), Bedford (Mich., 3-2) …. So far they’ve played the tougher part of their schedule.”
The Route 224 Rivalry with O-G took a two-year hiatus when Findlay joined the Three Rivers Athletic Conference and had to adjust its schedule to a double round of league games. But the Titans are back on the schedule, one of four Western Buckeye League teams the Trojans will face this season.
“The WBL is a great league,” Rucki said. “The teams are well-coached, the kids put in the effort and the communities follow their teams well. We had a good crowd here for Defiance. The basketball programs are important to those schools and when you win games, that’s what happens.”
Ottawa-Glandorf has become a perennial power under the likes of Ron Niekamp, Dave Sweet, Josh Lesley and, currently, Tyson McGlaughlin. The Titans have won three state championships in the past 13 seasons, a Division II crown in 2004 and Division III titles in 2008 and 2013.
McGlaughlin lost eight players from last year’s state championship. But the Titans have won three straight, four of their last five and return an excellent big man in 6-7 junior Noah Bramlage. Plus, there is the program’s strong tradition.
“They’re going to come in here and play hard and compete because they have guys who know how to play the game,” Rucki said.
“I’m sure Tyson (McGlaughlin) will say they’re not the same team they were last year. But they’re better than they were a month ago, and they’re going to be even better a month from now. They’re on the right progression, and getting better.”
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