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Bristol maintains its lofty goals

BRISTOLVILLE — After knocking at the door several times in the previous seven seasons, the Bristol High School boys basketball team burst through that door last season, capturing a Division IV district championship. It was the program’s fourth district title overall.

Ninth-year coach Craig Giesy is hoping that the area’s feel-good story last season doesn’t become a distant memory this season.

“Every year, our goal is to win the district title and we finally got our first in my eight years here,” said Giesy, whose team finished 21-5 after losing to Richmond Heights 66-34 in a regional semifinal. “It doesn’t matter who the other top teams are, our eyes our on winning that title every year. Now we want to repeat it this year and continue to do that on a regular basis. You may not always reach your goals, but you’ve got to set them high and strive to reach them.”

However, Giesy also was quick to point out that accomplishments reached last season don’t mean a thing this year.

“Every year it’s a different group of kids and every team starts out 0-0,” he said. “These kids will have to go out there and write their story for this year. There’s no looking back until you’ve finished competing altogether.”

The Panthers, who went 11-2 to win the Northeastern Athletic Conference Stripes Division, are returning three starters after losing their top offensive player and top defensive player to graduation. They will search for ways to fill the voids left by Gage Elza, the Trumbull County Player of the Year, and Damion Durst.

Elza averaged 26.3 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 steals per game, while shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He was first-team all-state. Durst, the team’s top defender, averaged 3.1 steals and 2.7 assists.

“We lost two terrific, top-end players and athletes,” Giesy said. “We do have three starters back and two or three others who gave us a lot of minutes off the bench, so we have a ton of experience and we want to use that to our advantage. We want to play fast and in control, limit turnovers and still create chaos defensively. Our approach may change somewhat in that we don’t have to be one-man show. We’re going to share the ball and go back to being more patient offensively and more decisive.”

The returning starters are seniors Mike Wiebe (6-foot, point guard), Matt Church (6-5, forward) and Matt Stephens (5-10, guard).

Church averaged 14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shot per game and shot 56.9 percent from the floor in the regular season. Stephens averaged 7.5 points and Wiebe was at 7.3 points

“Mike is back to lead the way and run the show and Matt has been playing varsity since his freshman year and he’s playing really well right now,” said Giesy, whose team opens Dec. 6 at Lordstown. “Matt Stephens, another guard, also is back and all three relied on Gage early last year. But when (Elza) started getting doubled and tripled and face-guarded, those three really started to pick up their level of play. They provided scoring balance as the season progressed and that enabled us to get to the regional.

“They’ll need to pick it up even more this year and I believe they will. We’d love to have three or four guys in the 12-to-18 point range. They have big-game experience. With the exception of the regional loss to Richmond Heights, almost every tournament game came down the the last couple of minutes. So they’ve been tested in clutch games. I’m excited to see how we evolve.”

Sophomore Nick Church (6-3, forward) and junior Jacob Erjavec (5-7, guard) will be in the starting lineup, with senior Seth Mooney (5-10, forward) and juniors Zach Burns (6-0, forward) and Jeremy Miller (5-9, guard) expected to play major minutes off the bench.

Among other expected contributors are senior Jordan Mahan (5-11 guard), juniors Brandon Buzzelli (6-0, guard) and Derek Nordlander (5-11, guard), sophomores Hadyn Mahan (6-1 guard) and Jonathan Stephens (5-5, guard) and freshmen Kai Adams (5-7, guard), Gage Gibson (5-11, guard) and Trent Mooney (5-6, guard).

“We’re going to keep our defensive identity, our full-court man-to-man pressure with a run-and-jump that we call Bristol Bedlam,” Giesy said. “We hope it leads to easy baskets, but when it doesn’t, we need to run our sets and make our opponents work on defense. We need to play with poise, especially on offense.

“We want to win our league and win at least 20 games because we have won 20-plus games in each of the past four years. In 2016 and 2018, we lost to Cornerstone Christian in the district tournament and they won the state title in ’16 and lost in overtime in the state championship game in ’18. In 2017, we lost to Kennedy in the district and I think that was one of their best teams in years. That’s why winning the district has been difficult for us until last year.We’re playing against some of the top teams in the state in our own district.”

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