By Ryan Kaczmarski
The visiting Olmsted Falls Bulldogs put up a valiant fight, but it was the Westlake Demons that came out on top Friday night, 69-63, and secured a share of the Southwestern Conference championship along with Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School.
Westlake’s first-year head coach Shawn Hood, no stranger to net-cutting ceremonies, had to be coaxed to climb the ladder and make a cut after the team was done with the net.
“I wanted to make sure all the kids had the opportunity, and I’m really happy for them,” Hood said. “I’ve done my share of cutting down nets.”
The victory did not come easily, with Olmsted Falls (6-14) charging out of the gate and leading the game 23-11 at the end of the first quarter. The Demons rallied in the second quarter and tied the game 33-33 on a 3-point buzzer-beater by senior Max Rodriguez – his only basket of the game.
The play of the Demons (18-2) in the first half had Hood thinking back to the loss to Brecksville on Feb. 10, but the defensive play of senior Grant Gase in the second half put his mind at ease.
“What a scary time,” he said of the opening half of the game. “There’s not a lot of guys that can take over a game defensively, and he (Gase) did it early in the second half. After that, I think we were ready to battle, and that’s all I wanted.
“They had a lot more things on their minds, celebration and whatever, rather than thinking about what it’s going to take to win the game.”
The Demons jumped out to a 44-36 lead early in the third quarter before the Bulldogs slowly clawed their way back into a 50-50 tie with 1:36 left. They entered the final period with a precarious 54-50 lead.
Westlake took over in the fourth quarter, forcing Olmsted Falls into multiple turnovers, and charged to the eventual 69-63 victory.
Even though the Bulldogs lost the game, Hood praised the moxie of the Olmsted Falls squad.
“Sports are wonderful,” he said. “If you’re not ready, there’s this thing called the psychological edge. If you’re not on the upside of that psychological edge, anything can happen.
“If we weren’t a good team, if we weren’t mentally tough, we would have lost tonight,” he added. “They wanted to spoil our party.”
Junior Bryan Mackenzie led the Demons in scoring with 16 points, including five key free throws down the stretch to secure the game, followed by junior Shawn Turk with 14, sophomore Gavin Skelly with 13 and Gase with 10.
“We won a title my freshman year, and to finally do it my senior year, I couldn’t be happier,” Gase said. “After we started to claw our way back (into the game), that’s when I knew, ‘We got this; we’re in control.’”
Also scoring for the Demons were senior Ezzat Assad, with eight points, Rodriguez and senior Andrew Guirguis, who each chipped in with three, and junior Jamie Lackner with two.
There will be no loss of intensity during this week’s practice for the Demons as they head into the postseason tournament.
“We have to go hard in practice,” Assad said. “We have to stay focused and be very intense in our practices.”
“We’re not going to do anything different (in practice),” Hood said. “I told those guys from day one, our practices will always be harder than the games.”
Olmsted Falls had nine players in the scoring column, with senior Jared Kurz leading the Bulldogs with a game-high 24 points, followed by Eric Meehan with eight; Billy Calabrase and Adam Asadorian with six; Steve Johnson with five; Kenny Hanna, Brandon Freidrich and Sam Lombardo with four; and James Sabatka with two.