Harding has turned season around

They didn’t really look like a Division I team. In fact, they didn’t look like a Division II team, either.

As lopsided losses started to pile up, it was hard to determine just how rough of a year it was going to be for the Warren G. Harding boys basketball team. Maybe they could finish .500, if they were lucky. Then they lost to a subpar Youngstown East team — by 29! — and a .500 record seemed rather optimistic.

Those were my thoughts — and probably those of several fans as well, even if they won’t admit it — after watching the Raiders earlier this season. Aside from bringing back just one lettermen and zero starters from last year’s team, there just didn’t seem to be anyone close to being a dominant player — something Harding has had plenty of over the years. The Raiders looked average, at best, at several positions and confused as to what their identity was as a team.

About two months later, this team is emphatically proving me and everyone else so very wrong.

The turnaround from being 2-4 and looking like the season was headed for disaster to winning a fourth-straight conference title and earning a 16-6 regular-season record should go down as borderline historic. Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich and the players deserve all types of credit for keeping it together because it couldn’t have been easy.

Kids, more than anyone, hear about how bad they are from all angles — school, social media, friends, relatives, opponents — when times are tough. Coaches can act like the talk doesn’t bother them, but they’re not immune to criticism either. When a team with hardly any experience starts off as badly as the Raiders did, everyday tasks can become miserable.

Players can stop putting forth effort at practice and tuning out coaches. Coaches can lack the attention-to-detail needed to win — watching film, bringing positive energy to practice and continuing to show players they believe in them.

That didn’t happen here. In fact, the opposite occurred.

Players and coaches worked harder, and a team that looked destined for mediocrity came together to produce an incredible season. Words like dedication, heart and attitude get thrown around a lot in sports, and people can start to view them as coach-speak or just something a writer puts in a story to make it sound more positive, but this group of kids faced adversity and responded with dedication, heart and a positive attitude.

“I had no doubt in my teammates — I knew we could pick it back up, get it together,” said junior point guard Dom McGhee of the team’s turnaround. “And we just kept fighting. We never stuck our heads down — even after that big loss to East at first. We came to practice the next day, kept fighting, kept running and our coach believed in us.”

A big midseason addition was Delmar Moore, a 6-foot-6 forward who can shoot, post up, rebound and defend. Moore had to sit out the first 11 games because of OHSAA transfer rules. Originally from Warren, he moved to South Carolina to be with his mother last year but wanted to return to the area for his senior year. The Raiders are sure glad he did. They’re 10-1 since he came back, and his offensive game was badly needed for a team that has some deficiencies on that end of the floor. Furthermore, his overall play has to be catching the attention of college scouts.

But it hasn’t been just about Delmar.

Follwing the 2-4 start, the Raiders went 4-1 without Moore (the lone loss being to Pennsylvania power Sharon Kennedy Catholic), and the fact that they were able to improve since adding Moore is another illustration of their mettle. Some players might be annoyed about losing playing time and sharing the spotlight, but egos didn’t get in the way, and the Raiders have taken off since he came back.

Vlajkovich’s role in all of this shouldn’t be overlooked. There were probably people calling for his head earlier in the season, but they should be singing his praises now.

He said numerous times that this has been one of the most enjoyable teams to coach in his six-year tenure because of their attitude and the fact that they have adopted a defense-first mentality (that’s not an easy sell to high school kids). He and his staff have done a masterful job of scheming and guiding a young, impressionable team into one that looks like a legitimate contender in the Division I Solon District.

Regardless of how far their tournament path goes, a team that thrives by using grit, effort, fundamentals and defense is one any Warren native can get behind. It’s a lesson learned never to underestimate a group that truly believes in one another.