Falls takes on VASJ in regional

NEWTON FALLS – Roy Sembach wasn’t expecting to be in a regional semifinal this year. Heck, he was just hoping for an above-.500 season.

Sembach won five district titles before this season, and as he watched the Tigers in the summer, he wasn’t expecting a sixth this year.

“When we went to a team camp and we played in a league, we were not winning very many games,” Sembach said. “We were competitive, but we didn’t win many. I thought if everything came together, we had a chance to be a better-than-.500 team, and a team that would be competitive and fight, but when the year started out and we started playing games, it went better than expected.”

That theme continued as the season progressed, with Newton Falls eventually beating Garfield for a Division III district title, and now Sembach is hoping the Tigers (18-7) have another miracle left in them.

Newton Falls plays the defending Division III state champion Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph Vikings at 6:15 tonight at Canton Fieldhouse. As daunting as that may sound, this isn’t the same VASJ team that won two state titles in the last three years.

The Vikings (20-5) lost eight of their top nine players from last season, according to Sembach, and while he sees his Tigers as an underdog, he also knows an upset is possible.

“I hope we can,” he said. “This is not the most physically imposing of the VASJ teams that you’ve seen over the years. They have good size, but it’s not unbelievable size, and they have good quickness, but it’s not unbelievable quickness.

“They’re not the team they’ve had the past two seasons. That being said, they’re certainly good enough and capable enough of winning a state championship.”

That leaves little room for error for the Tigers.

Newton Falls likely needs another big game from Jaden Walton, and the senior has provided plenty this season. The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 27 points per game, seven rebounds, 4.7 steals and 3.5 assists. He became the school’s all-time scoring leader two games ago and scored nearly 700 points this year alone.

“He went from what I thought was very good to arguably having the best single season in Newton Falls basketball history,” Sembach said. “He’s been just incredible. Noah Suarez and Ben Simpson took on huge roles, and all the other guys have contributed in several ways and were very willing to do little things to help us win.

“It’s really turned into a special season. Winning a district title for this team and these guys is a tremendous accomplishment, one they can look back on and enjoy the rest of their lives, and now, for us, it’s just fun. We’re going to go out there and put it all on the line and see what we can do.”

They’ll have to do it against the talent-rich Vikings.

VASJ is led by an impressive backcourt tandem of point guard Jerry Higgins and shooting guard Sherman Dean.

Higgins is a 5-7 sophomore point guard who Sembach described as “real quick and strong.” Higgins is one of the only players returning who contributed to last year’s state championship team. He averages 12.6 points, 5.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game and has a team-high 60 steals. Dean is a 6-2 sharp-shooter who’s making 42 percent of his 3-point shots.

Another key player Sembach pointed out was 6-7 freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney. He’s only 165 pounds and he’s not a starter, but Gaffney has a team-high 35 blocks and leads VASJ with 4.4 rebounds per game. He averages 8.3 points.

What makes the Vikings so tough is there are several other talented players who contribute in a number of ways, Sembach said.

“They’ve got some other good, athletic guys who play defense,” he said. “They’ve got some pretty big, strong guys to bang the glass. They’re VASJ. They’re what you expect.”

The Tigers’ goal is to simply compete. Sembach said he wants his team to stay in the game as long as possible and hopefully take advantage of some of the Vikings’ early jitters.

“They have a lot of talent, but they do not have that experience,” Sembach said, “and if we can somehow early on instill some fear and doubt in them, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Another magical night from Walton wouldn’t hurt either.

“It’d be nice to have one of those (tonight), that’s for sure,” Sembach said.