STRUTHERS — Coming off a disappointing 10-13 season, Struthers senior basketball player Jared Laczko had hopes for a better final varsity season.
At 19-3 with the Wildcats’ first Northeast 8 Conference crown, Laczko acknowledged the team's expectations were exceeded.
“We expected a good season, but 19-3 is hard to do,” the Wildcats’ 6-foot-2 forward said. “We weren’t expecting that.”
Struthers won the league title with a 12-2 record. They split with NE8 rivals Poland and South Range. Their other loss was to Uniontown Lake at a Christmastime Snow Classic in Canton.
But the Wildcats are clicking this season.
“Last year was a struggle,” Laczko said. “This year, we totally turned it around. Winning all these games has been very fun.”
Laczko cited practicing harder and an improved attitude during games as the reason for the difference.
“We didn’t play together [then] as much as we have this year,” he said. “The record shows we have worked hard.”
Guard Carson Ryan is the Wildcats’ other senior. Also playing guard are juniors Trey Metzka, Brandon Washington and Aidan Slocum. Wernicki considers Ryan, Metzga and Laczko as returning starters. Washington started about half of last year’s games before becoming ineligible.
“I used to be a guard, but based on our roster I had to switch to a big,” Laczko said of his junior season. “It’s been fine,” adding that he believes he’s transitioned well. “My coach trusts me to play the position.”
Basketball isn’t Laczko’s only varsity sport. In the spring, he will play for the Wildcats’ baseball team. He pitches and plays outfield.
He will graduate with seven varsity letters — four in baseball and three in basketball.
Laczko has been a starter in baseball since his freshman season. In basketball, he started some games as a sophomore and junior, and all of them this season.
“For me, he’s always been kind of a glue guy,” said basketball head coach Michael Wernicki. “He was pretty much a full-time starter last year.
“He’s gained a lot of confidence just from playing [many] minutes — you can only develop so much in practice. To get on the floor and get quality minutes, that’s when your mental development really begins.”
Wernicki said part of Laczko’s blossoming as an all-around player came because “I don’t think he had ever been really counted on that much. As the year went on last year, I began to incorporate him more and more. Obviously, this year he’s a very important part of what we do. I have confidence in him.
“He’s got a good IQ, and he’s one of those guys I can move around and not worry about his not knowing what needs to be done.”
The Wildcats have the second seed for the Division II district tournament at Boardman High School. On Friday, they will host East at Struthers Fieldhouse. Last Tuesday, East knocked out seventh-seeded Girard, 58-49.
Laczko said Poland is the Wildcats’ top rival in the NE8. This season, the visiting team won both games. Laczko recalled the win at Poland was one of MyYTV’s televised “Game of the Week” contests.
“The gym was just filled, and we could barely hear,” he said. “It was loud, and they almost won on a last-second shot. It was a really close game.”
Wernicki said unselfishness is a team trademark.
“Jared has been the catalyst — he doesn’t ask for anything. He doesn’t get upset when [teammates] take shots. He takes what the defense gives him.
“He’s come up big in different moments. We don’t beat Poland in Poland without his two 3s. Against Girard in the championship game, he had 17 points.
A rematch with Poland is possible, but only in the district title game.
“That would be a very packed gym,” Laczko said.
Chaney has the district’s top seed. West Branch and Poland are seeded third and fourth.
Should all four seeds win Friday, Chaney and Poland would play in one semifinal. It would be a rematch from last year’s championship game won by Poland in overtime.
Struthers would face West Branch in the other semifinal.
Laczko said playing in the district title game as a sophomore will help if the Wildcats win two more games to play for a regional trip.
“The atmosphere,” said Laczko of what makes playing in a big game so special. “I think being there then will help us now because a few of us will be more comfortable.”
As much as he is enjoying basketball, baseball is Laczko’s first love.
“I’ve been playing [baseball] since I was 4 years old,” Laczko said of his T-ball days.
This spring, Laczko said he’ll share starting pitching duties with Robert Tomko and Anthony Monaco.
He prefers patrolling center field, but sometimes he moves over to left field.
Laczko, who has a 3.7 grade-point average, said his plans for next fall are still to be determined. One possibility is enrolling at Youngstown State University to study biology. He’d like to become a chiropractor.
“My dad goes to a chiropractor all the time and tells me how much it means because he feels so much better,” Laczko said. “I like to help people, and I think I could do that.”
But he’s keeping his options open in case a college offers him the chance to play baseball.
Laczko's younger brother, Chance, is a freshman basketball player and was on the court with Jared on Feb. 21 in a 61-48 Senior Night win over Sebring.
Not wanting to look too far ahead, Laczko admits a regional game — in baseball or basketball — “would be awesome.
“It’s something I’ve never experienced, so that would be amazing, especially since it’s my last year.”