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Opposites attract in regional

Upstart ’Dogs face touted VASJ

Tribune Chronicle file Lakeview’s AJ McClellan, left, dribbles upcourt as Struthers' Adrian Brown defends during their Division II district championship game last weekend. The Bulldogs play Villa Angela-St. Joseph tonight in a regional semifinal.

Two teams with very different histories reached the Division II Canton Region semifinal in very different ways.

On one hand, there’s the Lakeview Bulldogs. An overachieving fourth seed in the Struthers District, Lakeview used chemistry and unselfish play to upset top-seeded Poland and eventually win the district title — their first in nearly 20 years.

Then there’s Villa Angela-St. Joseph. One of the “kings” of Ohio high school basketball over the last decade, the Vikings, who cruised to a sixth consecutive district title, have been to five straight state final games and won a Division III state championship last year.

The matchup may seem lopsided, but no one seems to be counting out the Bulldogs. The teams meet at 6:15 tonight at the Canton Memorial Civic Center, and the winner plays either Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary or Richfield Revere on Saturday in the regional final.

VASJ coach Babe Kwasniak certainly isn’t overlooking the Bulldogs. A VASJ alumnus, Kwasniak learned his lesson as a player in 1993, when a team with six Division I college players lost to an underdog Girard team in the state final.

“I remember watching (Girard) in their semifinal game at Akron’s JAR Arena,” Kwasniak said, “and I remember thinking, ‘If we played them 100 times, we would win 100 times.’ That was the last time I ever underestimated a team, and they beat us. I promised I’d never underestimate another team. I never have, and I never will.”

Even so, the longtime coach enjoys Lakeview’s story, which centers around a group of kids who play the game the right way.

“What makes Ohio high school basketball so special is teams like Lakeview getting (to the regional),” Kwasniak said. “The fact that they’re there is great for high school basketball in Ohio.”

His feelings could change if the Bulldogs keep their current streak going.

Lakeview (20-6) has won seven straight and nine of its last 10 games, and the Bulldogs have received scoring from all over. Four players are averaging in double figures (Daniel Evans, TJ Lynch, AJ McClellan and Drew Munno), with three sinking more than 50 3-pointers on the season (Evans, Lynch and McClellan). It’s more than just 3-point shooting, however, for Lakeview, which averages 16 assists per game and has twice as many 2-point field goals as 3s.

“You can’t beat the way we’re playing right now,” Lakeview coach Ryan Fitch said. “The biggest thing is the unselfishness. These kids really share the ball, and they couldn’t care less who scores and who gets assists and who gets rebounds. As long as we’re winning and playing well, that’s all that matters to this group, and it’s evident in our balance. We’ve got four guys scoring somewhere between 11.2 and 12.6 (points per game). The unselfishness right now is just a huge factor to why we’ve been successful.”

They had better keep it up against the Vikings (17-8).

Led by star point guard Jerry Higgins, VASJ may be coming together at the right time after losing numerous players to graduation and transfers. Higgins, who is 23-1 in tournament games during his career, has carried the Vikings, who also boast two starters standing 6-foot-6 and 6-8.

Higgins leads VASJ in points per game (23.1), assists (6.3), steals (4) and is second in rebounding (5.2). Kwasniak raved more about his leadership skills (he owns a 4.4 GPA and is going to college to be a doctor), but his physical abilities caught Fitch’s attention.

“He has the complete package,” Fitch said. “He can shoot the 3, he gets to the rim, he has a nice mid-range game, so he definitely causes matchup issues.”

Fitch also mentioned VASJ’s defense as a concern. He hopes the Civic Center doesn’t help them even more.

With this being the Bulldogs’ first regional appearance since 2001, Fitch took the team to Youngstown State University’s Beeghly Center for practice earlier in the week. He wanted them to get a feel for what it’s like to play in an arena instead of a gym, as the higher ceilings and overall design can affect players’ shooting.

“I was really worried about it,” he said. “We practiced for about 85 minutes, and I’d say about 45 of them were different shooting drills, and we shot the ball pretty well at Beeghly, so if it’s anything like that, hopefully that’ll be all right.”

A few thousand fans will make the atmosphere a little more interesting.

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