BOARDMAN — Although a 10-game winning streak came to an end Sunday at the hands of a familiar opponent, the Boardman High School boys basketball team can see progress being made in the Spartans’ pursuit of a Division I district title.
At North Canton Hoover’s showcase honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Spartans lost 50-45 to Green High School of Uniontown, the team that knocked Boardman out of the postseason in the Canton district semifinals last March.
Pat Birch, now in his eighth season as Spartans head coach, noted Green won last year’s tournament game by 14 points.
“We were up one at halftime and down by six going into the fourth quarter,” Birch said. “They hit something crazy, like 15 of 16 free throws in the fourth quarter and never gave us a chance.”
This time, Green (12-1) was not able to seal the victory until much later in the contest.
“It was a tough loss, but we’ll bounce back,” said Derrick Anderson, Boardman’s senior point guard. “[That loss] is in the past now — we’re focused on getting better.”
On Tuesday, the Spartans (11-1) lived up to Anderson’s vow, defeating All-American Conference Red Tier rival Warren Harding, 61-42. Anderson led the offensive attack with 25 points. Boardman leads the league with a 4-0 record.
Anderson, who is averaging 22 points per game, said the Spartans must learn from their first defeat at the hands of Green. The main lesson, he said, is to be “more patient offensively and be more alert defensively. We’ve got to be a lot better than that.”
For himself, it’s “to keep my composure the whole game at both ends of the floor.”
The Spartans have seven of the nine players from last season’s 20-4 team back: Anderson, Tommy Fryda, Zach Ryan, Connor Miller, Charlie Davis, Ethan Andersen and Daeone Martin.
“We had pretty high expectations coming into this year, having our leading scorer back in Derrick,” Birch said. “Obviously, he’s a really good point man.
“He’s exceptional with the ball in his hands,” Birch said. “He’s got a really good pace. He changes speeds very well. He usually gets guys on their heels, and he’s just really good at finishing around the basket.
“He’s expanded his game this year, much more consistent from the outside in looking for shots,” Birch said. “He’s knocking them down at a much higher rate than he was a year ago. Pretty cool to see him take another step as a player.”
Anderson joined the Spartans' varsity squad as a sophomore, starting the final eight games.
Anderson said the biggest difference from his sophomore team that finished 13-9 to last year’s 20-4 squad was improved chemistry.
“Our chemistry level was very high,” Anderson said. “My sophomore year, we didn’t have the chemistry that we wanted — that hurt us a lot.
“Last year, we all had the same play style," he said. "We knew with that versatility, [it seemed] we all knew what we would do.”
He’s enjoying his final varsity season.
“It’s been cool. We’re all working hard,” Anderson said. “We’ve got one goal — to keep winning and get better.”
Last spring, Anderson ran track for the first time, focusing on sprints. He did it to get better “for basketball, mainly, to help with my quickness, speed."
Anderson played on Boardman’s freshman football and basketball teams. Also as a freshman, he played in a few junior varsity basketball games.
Giving up football was "very hard,” he said.
“That’s what I wanted to be, a football player.”
Anderson was a running back and safety, but "basketball took over my life,” he said.
What he likes most about playing point guard is “getting my teammates involved. I feel comfortable with the ball in my hands. I like to set my teammates up and be creative with the ball.”
Anderson is in no rush to make his college decision.
“After the season, I’ll be more into that [mode]. I’m just focused on [this] season right now.”
He’s considering business or theater as a major.
Pressed to explain his theater choice, Anderson laughed, admitting he’s not been a part of any of the shows produced by Boardman’s acclaimed theater department.
“I don’t know why I haven’t,” Anderson said. “I m going to look into that.
“I like acting, so being in movies interests me,” Anderson said. “I’d like to show another side that’s not been seen before.”
Anderson said Evelyn Stanton, who teaches business courses, has made a big impact on him. One of her courses covered video game programming.
“She cares. It’s crazy,” said Anderson of Stanton’s influence. “She cares about me not only basketball-wise, but life. She makes sure I’m on top of my grades or on top of everything, makes sure I’m acting right and I’m focused. ”
He said sophomore DJ Evans is the player who can lighten the team’s mood if needed.
“He’s funny all around,” Anderson said. “He’s one of those guys that you can look at him [doing something] and start laughing. You know he’s just a funny dude — always smiling, happy.”
Anderson is hoping to play deep into the tournament.
“The goal is to keep winning — win the league, win a district championship and go to regionals. And keep going.
“There are no limits on us, nothing to stop us from achieving what we want to achieve. Sticking together, we can do the unthinkable.”
Boardman is ranked eighth in this week’s Associated Press poll of Ohio‘s Division I teams. Green (12-1) is 10th.
Despite the loss, Birch says the experience of the holiday showcase was worth it.
“I think it worked out really well for us,” said Birch of Hoover’s invitation. “It’s midway through the year for us. We’ve been playing pretty good basketball.
“They are a really good team,” Birch said of Green. “Obviously, it didn’t fall our way, but we know [now] we are not far off. We played a really good basketball team, and it was a one-possession game with a couple of minutes left. We had a chance to win but couldn’t get a couple of shots to fall.”
Birch, a 2002 Springfield High School graduate, is in his eighth season as Boardman’s head coach. His high school coach was Jeff Brink.
When Birch was a junior, Springfield lost to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in the memorable Division III district title game at Youngstown State University. Because of the hype surrounding then-Irish sophomore LeBron James, the game was moved from Salem High School to YSU to accommodate a bigger crowd.
“That was a really cool night,” Birch said. “That place was just packed. It was awesome. We lost, but looking back, that’s a pretty cool memory. A lot of energy was [expended] in that game.”
Birch said he recently found James’ high school statistics online. James’ 14 points in that game “was his lowest output of the year. We held sophomore LeBron to 14 points.”
The Irish went on to win the state crown, then moved up to Division II in 2002 where the Irish defeated Poland in the state semifinals, then finished state runners-up, losing to Roger Bacon.
Birch’s final varsity game in 2002 was a buzzer-beater loss to archrival South Range in the Division III district semifinals at Salem.
“That one is burned in my memory,” Birch said. “You never forget one like that. We had beaten them twice [in the regular season], and the second time by like 39.
“We shot the ball awesome, probably our best game of the year,” Birch said. “Two-and-a-half weeks later in the tournament, they beat us.
“How do you go from a [blowout] win to losing on a buzzer-beater?”
After graduating, Birch played football at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. He was named Boardman’s head basketball coach in 2012.
Birch’s coaching staff includes Eric Fender, the former Springfield head coach who is a Boardman assistant for the third season. A 2003 graduate of Poland High School, Fender played for the Bulldogs when they lost to James and Akron SVSM in the 2002 state semifinals.
Fender’s father, Tom, was Fitch’s head coach in the ’80s and ’90s, then was Ken Grisdale’s assistant coach at Poland for many seasons.
When Fender, who played at Mount Union College, took over at Springfield, Tom Fender became his assistant coach.
Three summers ago, Eric Fender stepped down at Springfield, then joined Birch’s staff.
“There was always kind of a mutual interest,” said Birch of he and Fender working together. “He approached me after his final [Springfield] season.
“We played against each other, his wife [Carolyn] is a family friend of mine from Springfield, him coaching at my alma mater — we had all these connections.
“He’s been a pretty good addition to us with his experience. He has a good head for the game, obviously.
Anderson agrees, saying the addition of Fender “was a big deal. coach Fender gives us a lot of information, passes a lot of knowledge to us. It helps us a lot.”
Birch is enjoying watching his players blossom.
“Last week, we had a couple of good wins,” Birch said of league wins over Canfield and Austintown Fitch.
Brink recently advised him, “You’ve got to really enjoy these moments with these kids.
“This is a really good group of kids,” Birch said. “They show up and work hard every day. There’s really no egos on this team, which is very refreshing in this day and age.
“They really just want to win.
“I told the guys, ‘I’m really just trying to soak all this [success] in with you guys.’
“I love these guys. We’re trying to get the most out of them while also appreciating just what we have, knowing that these moments are fleeting.”