Panther pride

Tuesday’s loss doesn’t define Bristol program

Tribune Chronicle file photo / John Vargo Members of the Bristol boys basketball team prepare themselves for their first tournament game, against John F. Kennedy. The Panthers won that game and two others before losing in the regional semifinals.

CANTON — Damion Durst was visibly upset after Tuesday’s 66-34 loss to Richmond Heights.

He was a senior guard on a Bristol High School boys basketball team which expected more than an early exit from a Division IV regional semifinal.

There were plenty of long faces to see on the sideline during the latter moments of that game. This team, which was 21-5, had more than one game to reflect upon.

This is a Bristol team which has accomplished so much the past couple of seasons, playing in numerous district title games at Grand Valley High School and being a hard-nosed team to beat in the Northeastern Athletic Conference. It’s a feisty, hard-working group, one that coach Craig Giesy was part of back in the early 2000s when his team went to a Division IV state final four and back-to-back regional appearances.

It’s not easy getting to Canton, facing more talent than you are used to during a regular season, even if you upgrade your schedule.

There was plenty to overcome and this Bristol team did so, paying its dues against a talented Cornerstone Christian team and a John F. Kennedy team in 2017 which had a great shot to win a state championship. This year, Bristol faced that kind of team in Richmond Heights, which was improved over last year, when it lost a high-scoring game against JFK.

This year’s Richmond Heights team was a long, lanky, more athletic version of Bristol. If you’ve ever faced the Panthers’ pesky full-court press, you begin to fear the thought. Springfield will see it first hand on Friday.

Bristol senior guard Gage Elza had a firm handshake and looked you in the eye after Tuesday’s game. The result was disappointing, but not demoralizing. Getting here for the Panthers was a long-time coming. The ride in a charter bus, the escort out of town by a fire truck and ambulance.

You could see those in the upper deck and behind the Bristol bench, wearing black Sweet 16 shirts, cheering on their Panthers despite the score inside the Canton Memorial Fieldhouse. Tuesday was about the celebration of this Bristol team.

“My four years have led me to this point,” Elza said. “I couldn’t be happier where it ended, play my last game in Canton. It was a dream come true and I’m glad it happened.”

Elza and Durst have created havoc for others in the backcourt, leading to Bristol’s stellar offense and defense. It’s about pressing and creating chaos, taking other teams out of their comfort zone. Both will be missed next season.

Matt Church, a 6-foot-4 post player, is one of the team’s returning players. He took care of a lot the Panthers did around the basket, doing things that never reach the box score. Giesy said the Panthers had a good JV team and could get some pieces there as well. The faces may change, but this Bristol team will compete next year for another district title.

This year’s team will hold a special place for those in the Bristol community. Ask Durst.

“These are my brothers,” he said. “I’m going to remember these guys for the rest of my life. I’ll be 30 years down the road from now and I’m still going to walk up to every one of these guys, give them a handshake and pull them in.”