HOWLAND - At one this season, Wednesday night's 54-45 sectional final win over rival Girard might have seemed a little far-fetched for the Newton Falls Tigers.
Having graduated seven seniors a year ago, including the school's all-time leading scorer, Roy Sembach's team found itself at 3-6 after nine games this season.
Under Sembach, the Tigers had posted winning seasons in 14 of the past 15 seasons, and since the local Division III tournament was moved to Howland six years ago, Newton Falls has yet to fail to win a sectional championship. Having won five of their last six regular season games, the Tigers (14-10) climbed over the .500 mark and have now rallied to find themselves winners of six straight sectional championships.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Newton Falls’ Ozzie Hawkins (10) pops off his shot as Girard’s Jake Ryser defends during the first half of Wednesday’s game at Howland High School.
"We lost a lot after last season," Sembach said. "(All-time leading scorer) Cody Dillon was our foundation the last several years as were our other six seniors. When we were 7-9 I really challenged them. They came up big tonight."
In what was a very close game for most of the night, Newton Falls was able to overcome a 43-42 deficit with more than 2 minutes remaining in the contest. Girard standout sophomore Craig Randall had just converted a coast-to-coast finish to give the Indians the lead.
Enter Ozzie Hawkins, who rallied for seven straight points, including an "and-one" open-court finish that sealed the Tiger victory.
"It was a tough game," Hawkins said of the win. "I always like playing them. It's sort of a rival game for us and it's always physical."
Randall finished with 18 points for the Indians. Evan Standohar led Girard with a game-high 23 points.
Girard (16-7) was held to just 30 percent shooting (16 of 52) for the night, and under 50 points for just the third time this year. Once came at the hands of the Poland Bulldogs, who are the No. 1 seed at the Boardman Division II district tournament. The other team:?Newton Falls.
"We thought that was the biggest key coming in," Sembach said. "We can be inconsistent on offense, and it showed tonight, but our defense was there for 32 minutes. Our defensive pressure and positioning was outstanding and I thought we did a great job on Randall."
Hawkins finished with 21 points for the Tigers, as did teammate Dale Kernen, who provided drama to the end the first half, netting a 75-footer to give Newton Falls a 23-21 halftime advantage.
"It was a tough game and I'm extremely proud of the way our kids played," Girard coach Craig Hannon said. "I love our team and where the program is at."
Newton Falls will advance to play LaBrae in a district semifinal on March 4. LaBrae, which beat Campbell on Wednesday night, defeated the Tigers in both regular season meetings, but both games were competitive.
"They're really good," Sembach said of the Vikings. "Peyton (Aldridge) is obviously very good, but even without him they'd still win an awful lot of games. I think if we can get off to a good start the pressure is on them. Hopefully we can hang in there and get them feeling the pressure."
Following the win, Hawkins was thrilled to get a third shot at LaBrae.
"They're a good team, but I think we are too," he said. "It's tough to beat a team three times. They want us and we want them."