There was plenty of talk prior to the start of the high school basketball season about the quality of play in this area, and most of it wasn't favorable.
Trumbull County has never been known as a hotbed for the sport, and all signs pointed to another ordinary season. It didn't appear that any team had a serious chance to advance to the state tournament, which meant the championship drought in the county would extend to 20 years.
The Girard Indians would remain the 1972 Miami Dolphins of area basketball - the only boys team to win a state crown (in 1993). There were plenty of good teams entering this season, but good only gets you to the regional level. More is needed to take the next step and earn the privilege of playing on the floor at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
There was one team that appeared to be a cut above the rest in Division III, but questions had to be answered. The LaBrae Vikings have the area's elite player in 6-foot-7 junior Peyton Aldridge, along with a cast of role players who have been the part of championships in their earlier years, but attempts to climb beyond the district level the last two seasons were thwarted by another towering presence - Burton Berkshire's 6-8 Tim Goff.
With Goff at Wheeling Jesuit University, the path to the Canton regional opened wider for other teams in the district. It was a chance for Aldridge and his teammates to showcase their talents in a way that would make fans take notice.
Here are exhibits 'A' and 'B' as proof that the Vikings have come of age - 75-52 and 59-30. Those are the impressive wins the Vikings posted over Oberlin and Beachwood, respectively, in the regional last week.
The 29-point win over Beachwood, the eighth-ranked team in Ohio, is a classic case of a score not revealing what took place. The Bison were held scoreless in the first quarter and had just four points at halftime. It was a "Down goes Frazier" game from the opening tip.
The Vikings play defense as if they enjoy the task, which is a rarity in the chest-pumping world of high-scoring offense. It's like putting a bowl of vegetables in front of a kid, and he actually smiles. No one likes to play defense - do they?
Newton Falls coach Roy Sembach said it best after a 55-18 loss to the Vikings in the district semifinals: "People talk about how good LaBrae is and how they score, but the best part of their game is the defensive end. People always ask me, 'What are you going to do to stop LaBrae?' I've always been more concerned about what are we going to do to score against LaBrae."
There are so many working parts that make it all go. The defensive play of Carl Brown, Nate Middleton, Aldridge, John Richards and Chris Clevenger stand out, as does the production of bench players like Marcell Richardson, Paul Zigmont and Kenny Hall, but this run has clearly been marked by Aldridge's emergence as a true star.
A 20.4 scoring average tells only part of the story of what Aldridge brings to the table. There's a calming presence when he brings the ball up court and sets up teammates with pinpoint passes. He can make shots from the perimeter like a 5-11 guard or post low and do the muscle work required of him.
You could see it come together in a win over the Windham Bombers late in the regular season when Aldridge nearly had a triple double. He surpassed the 1,000-point career scoring mark with 32 that night.
At the time, Aldridge was 544 points short of the LaBrae career scoring leader - his mom, Lisa. Peyton will gladly wait until next season to get the upper hand on mom. He has a bigger goal to conquer this week.
After LaBrae's double-overtime win over Ursuline in the district final, Fighting Irish coach Keith Gunther said someone actually said to him that Peyton wasn't all that good. Gunther debunked that comment by saying Peyton is the best player in the area since Desmar Jackson played at Warren G. Harding.
That's high praise coming from Gunther, who ranks as one of LaBrae's best basketball players ever. Gunther hated losing to his high school alma mater, but he graciously tipped his hat to the best player on a team that was bound for more honors.
The best may be yet to come.