Fun times ahead for Division IV Warren District

On Sunday, the Ohio High School Athletic Association released the district brackets for boys basketball, and of all the brackets involving local teams, the Division IV Warren district looks the most intriguing.

The depth of this year’s tournament is one of the deepest there’s been in a long time. At least three teams can consider themselves favorites to win the district, while another two schools could be darkhorses to take the district crown.

The Bristol Panthers top the list of favorites and for good reason. Barring the team laying an egg in the team’s final two games against Mathews and Southington, Bristol will become Trumbull County’s first 22-0 team, and as of this week, the Panthers are the No. 3-ranked team in the state.

The play of Trumbull County Player of the Year candidate Chad Oliver will determine the Panthers’ fate. The senior averages 24 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, and he can take over a game and carry the team in necessary.

Sleeping on Oliver’s supporting cast can prove fatal, however, as players like Brandon Lee and Johnny Simcox can make opposing teams pay for focusing too much on Oliver.

The first-seeded team’s first test could come in the district semifinal against the No. 3 seed and fellow contender McDonald. Coach Jeff Rasile’s team is 17-3 and earned a share of the Inter Tri-County League, Lower Tier title with the first-seeded squad in the Struthers District, Wellsville.

McDonald and Bristol have many similarities. Both deploy a full-court press, with Bristol’s a more man-to-man press and McDonald’s a more zonal one, and both teams have a star that can carry the team. Without senior Stephen Politano due to mono, junior Matt Seitz will need to bring his A-game for the Blue Devils to go far.

As much as regular season success helps, postseason experience will factor in as well. Windham has both.

Windham’s postseason pedigree in this district makes it a favorite almost every year. Since this district moved from Middlefield to Warren in 2004, the Bombers have won the title in every year but two – John F. Kennedy claimed the crown in 2009 and Maplewood moved onto regionals in 2010.

The Bombers will try to make it three consecutive district titles as the second seed, going 18-2 on the season. Windham’s only losses came to Berlin Hiland, the back-to-back Division IV state champions, and LaBrae, a 20-point loss on Tuesday.

Despite playing in a conference where only one other school (Mogadore) is in Division IV, Windham dominated the Portage Trail Conference, County Division. The Bombers won every league game by double digits to earn the conference crown.

Windham boasts a strong starting five, with Matt Knight leading the way. The senior averages 16.5 points per game and shoots 49.5 percent from the field. Two other Bombers average double figures, as senior Cameron Pozsgai and sophomore Parker Rickey drop 14.8 and 13.0 points per night. Point guard Jared Taylor and the efficient Stephen Kacenski (58.1 percent from the field) complement the three scorers and make the Bombers a scary team to face.

Other than the three favorites, Maplewood has an outside shot to make a run. The Rockets kept up with Bristol until the very end in last Friday’s encounter, and they went on an eight-game winning streak during the season. The junior-laden team is not afraid of the big game (just ask Brookfield). Windham shouldn’t look past this possible semifinal opponent.

Another team that could play spoiler is Mineral Ridge. The Rams started out slow but made a run for an ITCL, Upper Tier title and are 13-8.

No matter who moves on to regionals, the winner will look to end the district’s abysmal record at the next stage. Outside of Windham’s run to the state semifinal in 2006, the Warren district winner hasn’t won a game and has posted a 2-8 record over nine years.

That mark could be tough to break this year, as the winner is set on a crash course with the winner of the Garfield Heights district, which has the state’s No.1-ranked Cleveland Villa-St. Joseph in the regional semifinals.

Before teams can dream of making a run at Columbus, though, they have to think of making a run for Canton, and with this field, that race is wide open.