Panther power

Bristol celebrates berth in regional

Tribune Chronicle / John E. Vargo Bristol Panther players celebrate their 52-39 victory over Badger in the Division IV district championship game played Friday night at Grand Valley High School in Orwell.

ORWELL — Some of those on the north side of the Grand Valley High School gymnasium migrated to the playing surface. Videos, photos and hugs followed.

There was plenty of celebration to go around in the wake of the Bristol High School boys basketball team’s 52-39 win over Northeastern Athletic Conference rival Badger Friday in the Division IV district final in front of a standing-room only crowd.

People lined up on both baselines with their backs to the wall and the blue padded surface near the basket. Others stood high atop the west side where there was a viewing area that held about 30 or so people. The rest packed into the stands, with fans of top-seeded Badger on one side and second-seeded Bristol on the other.

Bristol knew this scene all too well. It was the third time in four years the Panthers (21-4) have made it to the district final. Talented Cornerstone Christian and John F. Kennedy teams have eliminated Bristol from district play in recent seasons.

Senior guard Gage Elza said his team came back with that determination every summer to improve, knowing they had to work harder than the year before. Hoisting the district championship trophy, climbing a ladder to cut down the nets, displaying his piece of history, Elza knew his team had achieved the goal so many other Panther teams had strived for in the past couple of seasons.

Tribune Chronicle / John E. Vargo Bristol Panther players celebrate their 52-39 victory over Badger in the Division IV district championship game played Friday night at Grand Valley High School in Orwell.

“It means the world to win this game,” said Elza, whose team faces Richmond Heights in a Canton Regional semifinal on Tuesday at 6:15 p.m. at the Canton Memorial Fieldhouse. “As a program, we’ve wanted this for so long. It’s the only goal we’ve had. The league, that’s awesome — seven years in a row. Tournament is the only thing that mattered to us. It’s the best feeling we’ve ever had.”

Bristol held a 20-15 advantage going into halftime, but knew any surge by Badger (19-6) could make this game tighter than it was.

Elza had a basket and 3-pointer in the first minute of the second half as the Panthers opened the lead to 27-15. Bristol outscored the Braves 18-6 in the first six minutes of the third quarter and led 40-25 after three quarters.

Bristol coach Craig Giesy told Elza on Thursday to enjoy the game. His season would be over sooner than later. Bristol, which was 19-of-53 from the floor, shot 7-of-16 and 2-of-6 from 3. The Panthers were 4-of-20 from 3 for the game. Guards Elza and Damion Durst combined for 12 of the team’s 20 points in the third quarter. Elza finished with 14 points, while Durst had 11.

“That third quarter I felt happy,” he said. “I was enjoying myself, regardless if I was missing shots. When we see the ball go through the hoop, we see the smile on our faces and then the momentum starts kicking in.”

Tribune Chronicle / John E. Vargo Bristol senior Gage Elza shows off his piece of a net he cut down after the Panthers beat Badger to win Friday’s Division IV Orwell District title. The Panthers advance to play in Tuesday’s Division IV Canton Regional semifinal against Richmond Heights.

Badger coach Josh Upshire said if his team kept its turnovers under 15, the Braves had a shot against a high-pressure defense like Bristol. Upshire praised Giesy for his game plan, taking away his major ballhandlers, forcing others to bring the ball upcourt. That contributed to Badger’s 21 turnovers.

“Our goal coming out of halftime is to win the first 3 minutes,” Upshire said. “Then we got rattled.

“In the past we did a good job of battling through and get the possessions we need to score. I felt with a senior team we’d be able to do that. I probably should’ve called a timeout and calmed us down.”

The flurry of black shirts swarming the floor took its toll on the Braves most of the night, flustering a Badger team that had one of its best seasons in years.

“Defensively the entire game we played well,” Giesy said. “We made them work for everything they got. We put a lot of pressure on the guards. They did a good job the first half. That third quarter we started out really nice and extended lead so we had room to work with there.”

Tribune Chronicle / John E. Vargo Bristol’s Matt Church goes up for two while he’s surrounded by a trio of Badger defenders (from left, Logan Lendak, Jacob Eucker and Travis Webber) during Friday’s game in Orwell. The Panthers beat the Braves in this Division IV district final, 52-39.

Matt Church, a 6-foot-4 post player, had six blocked shots for Bristol with half of those in the third quarter.

“Even the shots he didn’t block he contested,” Giesy said. “That was one of the big reasons we held them down. When they get those two-on-ones, he did a really good job in the backcourt.”

Badger almost cut the lead to single figures in the fourth quarter as Bristol made seven of its 14 turnovers, slowing the game down in the final 4 minutes.

“We were a little careless with the ball, a little weak with the ball,” Giesy said. “We have to be stronger as we move forward. They ended up doing the job in the end. Good thing we had such a good third to weather that storm a little bit.”

Badger senior Aiden Miller, who is the team’s all-time leading scorer, finished with a game-high 17 points, including a banked in 3-pointer at the buzzer. Miller was instrumental in the Braves’ success this season. Miller said after Monday’s district semifinal win against Windham he is deciding if he will continue playing basketball at the collegiate level.

Tribune Chronicle / John E. Vargo Bristol’s Damion Durst, right, goes past Badger’s Keith Barto Friday in Orwell.

“He’s pretty heartbroken,” Upshire said. “He’s done a great job for us. Those three years he’s been with us he’s worked his butt off every day to get where he’s been. It’s a shame to see a kid like that graduate.

“I hope he sticks around the program and keeps those values we hold in our program and make sure they’re still here.”

This is the first trip for Bristol to the regional since 2003 when Giesy was a senior at Bristol. The Panthers went to a Division IV state semifinal before losing to Delphos St. John in 2002. This season, Giesy knows the challenge a taller, more athletic Richmond Heights team poses for these Panthers.

“It’ll be fun for us to go down there and feel the environment,” Giesy said. “We’ll have to put a solid game together to compete. We have to be more solid than we were tonight.”

Upshire said he will be in attendance for Tuesday’s game. He’s said he tries to mirror his Badger team to the Panthers.

“I’d ride his bus if he (Giesy) would let me,” Upshire said. “That’s how much appreciation I have for what he does.”