By ANDY WOLF
BOWLING GREEN — Pandora-Gilboa’s boys athletic program has a lot to be proud of this season.
The Rockets’ football and boys basketball teams put together strong regular seasons and made postseason runs to the regional finals.
Now, the basketball team is going to state.
Pandora-Gilboa knocked off Convoy Crestview 70-58 Friday in a Division IV regional final to secure its first state berth in school history.
The success this season is a stark contrast of how both teams’ campaigns ended the year prior.
The basketball team was one-and-done a year ago in the postseason while the football team went 3-7 and didn’t sniff the playoffs.
“Back to last year, that one-and-done, we knew we could’ve gone far,” junior guard Riley Larcom said. “That’s not us.”
Pandora-Gilboa isn’t a school full of athletic history. The Rockets had never been to the regional finals in either sport before.
If there ever was a time to do so, this season was it.
“Coming into this year, we knew there’s no way we’re a one-and-done type team,” Larcom said. “We knew we could get to the regional finals and now look at us; we’re at state. Hard work pays off.”
Pandora-Gilboa’s run to the basketball regional final served to wipe out an early exit and heartbreaking end to last season.
The Rockets looked strong during the 2016-17 regular season, winning the Putnam County League and finishing runner-up in the Blanchard Valley Conference by one game to an equally tough Liberty-Benton team.
They entered the postseason with a 16-6 record and the No. 4 district seed.
However, PCL rival and 8-12 Ottoville sent them packing in the first round via a 63-57 upset. The Rockets had just won at Ottoville, 60-53, a month prior.
“First of all, one-and-done, that left a terrible taste in our mouths,” senior guard Drew Johnson said.
“We were all juniors and sophomores. It was a big learning year for us. It was a huge, huge learning curve. Like the coaches said, our defense wasn’t existent and that’s what beat us.”
Johnson and his teammates focused on defense in summer ball and preseason practice.
“This summer we went over the main principles of defense,” Johnson said. “Senior year, all the coaches were hard on us: “This is our foundation, this is what’s going to make us good, great and a long run in the tournament.
“Hats off to the coaches, because the coaches are always right. Believe it or not.”
Johnson’s last comment caught head coach Joe Braidic off guard.
“Did you just say that?” a delightfully shocked Braidic said. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
“At the moment, sometimes it’s like ‘son of a gun, coach,'” Johnson said back.
“Especially when you get hard of hearing out there,” Braidic replied with a laugh.
The Rockets brought eight letterwinners, including six seniors, back from a year ago. A big season seemed on the horizon.
It began with decisive win after decisive win — P-G won its first six games by at least 13 points.
After a 55-52 nonconference loss to Upper Scioto Valley, the Rockets closed their regular season on a 15-game winning streak.
They got over the hump by dispatching Holgate in their tourney opener before surviving a nailbiter, 49-45, to PCL rival Miller City in the district semifinals.
Wins over Kalida (56-33) and Mohawk (50-31) sent Pandora-Gilboa cruising into the regional final.
Braidic cited the composure of his two juniors and football players, Larcom and Breece, as a key factor in Tuesday’s regional semifinal victory over Mohawk.
They were the only two P-G football players to take the court Friday night.
“I think their run in football, it kind of prepared them a little bit,” Braidic said. “Both of those two, all tournament, were actually pretty steady.
“Jared (Breece) being a quarterback in football, that’s a lot of pressure. You either perform or your team loses right there.”
In the 2016 football season, the Rockets struggled along to a 3-7 record. Three of their losses were by a total of 13 points; two losses came in overtime.
Facing nine of the same 10 regular season opponents, Pandora-Gilboa got off to a hot start on the gridiron.
Their 6-0 opening to 2017 included revenge wins over Columbus Grove (27-14), Arlington (28-0) and Leipsic (39-20).
They’d later avenge another loss to Hopewell-Loudon (16-7) and suffer their only two regular season defeats to Liberty-Benton (31-20) and McComb (49-27) — both playoff teams.
Two weeks into the playoffs, the Rockets got a second crack at McComb and dealt the Panthers a 28-9 loss.
Pandora-Gilboa’s postseason run ended in the regional semis 49-7 to top-seed and unbeaten Norwalk St. Paul.
“The experience in football certainly helped, I think, a lot,” Larcom said. “Probably the regional final game against St. Paul, I was really nervous. You can’t be really nervous in those type of games. It’s just another game.”
Against Convoy Crestview, he told himself it was just another game.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Larcom said. “You’ve just got to play hard, and I knew I had a tough matchup. It’s another game. If you find that out first, you’re going to win most of the time.”
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By ANDY WOLF