With his team’s season-ending loss to Toledo Rogers less than a week behind him, Rocky River head coach Michael Murray took time to both reflect and look ahead.
“I tell people all the time that I always remember the practices and the things that happen on a daily basis,” Murray said last week before traveling to Columbus to take in the OHSAA Championships.
“This group is like a lot of the other groups we’ve had here,” said Murray, who in his first season as the boys head coach led the Pirates to within a game of the Division II Final Four. “We enjoyed being together, and that made it special.
“I was very proud walking off the court last Saturday,” he said, referring to the Pirates’ 78-68 loss to the Rams in the regional championship game that ended their season at 22-3. “I thought we again played hard, just as we had all year.
“Hats off to our seniors for getting us there, as well as the rest of the kids we’ll have coming back next year. We talked to them in the locker room afterwards. Now it’s their turn draw from this experience and add to it,” Murray said.
The Pirates had just three seniors on the squad in starting guards Jimmy Corrigan, Kyle Dunne and James Meyer, yet turned in a 20-2 regular season. That record included a 13-1 mark in the West Shore Conference that gave the Pirates the outright league championship.
Their only losses of the season came early at Avon and later on in the season at Brecksville. For their efforts, Murray’s Pirates earned the top seed in the Westlake sectional-district tournament. There, River took out future WSC foe Elyria Catholic, 69-43, for the sectional championship.
In the district semifinals, the Pirates put the clamps on arch-rival Bay in the second half and came away with a 57-39 win. The win was the third of the season over the Rockets, who had reached the district title game the season before.
The Pirates advanced to the Bowling Green regional with a 51-44 win over Holy Name. The next week, the program reached the regional championship game for the first time in school history with a 54-52 comeback victory over Van Wert.
Despite the loss to Rogers, the Pirates finished with a new school record for wins in a season. Not a bad start for Murray, who took over the boys after building the girls program into a district powerhouse.
Murray looked back on the first days as the boys coach and how the building of the season began.
“On the girls side, I think we were spoiled a bit because we had such a great team,” Murray said. “We had some great players, but we also had a great team that enjoyed being with each other. Early on this season, we wanted to do the same things to develop the relationships with the kids.
“We wanted to make sure we had a team-first attitude,” Murray said. “We wanted to make sure that we not only enjoy the work ahead of us, but the here and now. We emphasized getting better every day in practice, things like that. Those are some of the things we concentrated on.
“I think for me, it was special because I could draw on some of the experiences I had on the girls side. I had experienced playing in the district, then finally winning one and getting over the hump, and getting to regionals and winning one there. Our vision as coaches expanded because we had been through that experience. We knew what it took to get there,” he said.
Murray, who led his girls squad to the regional finals for the first time a year ago, admitted he found some similarities between the two teams early on.
“We saw some of the same signs early with the boys,” he said. “It was kind of special, because we had that experience of getting there the previous year. It’s a tremendous thing that our boys bought in to that.”
“Our boys gained a lot of experience last year,” Murray said. “The guys played hard that season, and you saw signs during the second half of the season that they were improving. So this year, it was a matter of implementing what out philosophy was and the direction we wanted to go in terms of the things we wanted to accomplish on a daily basis.”
As successful as the season was, there were some challenges that had to be met along the way, Murray said.
“In our preseason scrimmages, we had some inconsistencies,” he recalled. “We had some very good teams on our scrimmage schedule. There were times where we looked pretty good, and time where we looked like we needed a lot more work. That inconsistency was the first things we had to overcome.
“We got off to a great start with the win at Westlake. That was huge for us because it set the tone for the entire year. Then we played a hard-fought game at Firelands. But the game I’ll always remember was the one at Avon.
“They took it to us the second half of that game. It wasn’t the score that bothered me as much as the way we lost. I felt we didn’t do the things we had stressed in practice, and I think we fell apart as a team. There were some trust issues that popped up that night.
“I think after going through that, the next couple of games were key for us. We were able to get some wins, and then we went into the winter break. Once we got there and were able to spend a little extra time together, I thought that was the biggest portion of the season.
“Once we got through that, I liked our chances against anybody,” he said.
Murray said that stretch was similar to the one he experienced a few years back as his girls team was starting to make its mark.
“We lost at the same place, at Avon,” he said. “It was like the sky is falling, but you just go back to work and learn from it. The same thing happened this season. The way we got outplayed that in that Avon game was something I’ll always remember. The rest of the year, though, I don’t think I had that same feeling walking off the court, whether we won or lost. We lost at Brecksville, but it was a very good game in a very tough place to play.”
“The way we played and the way we approached things after that Avon game were different,” he added.
And the rest, as they say, was history.