Ursuline was the last area high school to win a state title, in 1994.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
It's been 10 years since Mitch Cerny walked off the floor of St. John Arena in Columbus after the most improbable, implausible, incredible and downright magical stretch of his coaching career.
"I remember everything," said Cerny, who led Ursuline High to the 1994 Division III boys basketball state championship. "You don't have enough time for me to tell you everything.
"It was an amazing season."
And it was rare.
Only six teams from the Valley have won a state title since the tournament started in 1923: Austintown Fitch (1931), Columbiana ('47), Rayen ('85), Girard ('93), Campbell ('93) and Ursuline ('94).
Over the past 10 years, there have been some good teams, bad teams, talented teams and almost great teams.
But there hasn't been a state title team.
"There's a lot of reasons for that," said Campbell coach Brian Danilov, who led the Red Devils to the 1993 Div. III state title. "There's been a drop of population in this area, so you don't have as many kids. And the kids today, I don't know if they're as hungry as they used to be. They have so many other things to do.
"I sometimes think the only thing they develop is their thumbs and fingers playing video games."
Talent and desire are big factors. But there are others -- player development, talent, preparation and health.
You also need a little luck. During the 1993-94 regular season, Ursuline didn't seem to have it.
Luck of the Irish
Ursuline went 10-10 during the regular season -- mainly due to a brutal schedule that included eight Div. I schools and seven Div. II schools. The Irish lost eight games by four points or less.
"We had a nice nucleus from the year before and we were tested by a very difficult schedule," said Cerny, now the athletic director at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb.
"But when we looked at the tournament bracket, we noticed that we had played the one or two seed in either a scrimmage or the regular season all the way up through the regional.
"We felt each game was a toss-up."
In the sectional final, the Irish squeaked by Mahoning Valley Conference champion Warren John F. Kennedy (61-58) and Brookfield (49-48), before pulling away from Newton Falls (55-46) in the district final.
"We lucked out against Brookfield," Cerny said. "I felt like we got away with a win that night and the kids felt the same. All year long we had been snake-bitten, but we were finally getting a little luck."
The Irish then beat Bedford Chanel (54-53) and Mooney (69-52) in the regional tournament. Ursuline had played those teams in back-to-back games during the regular season, which cut down on preparation.
"It's rare to have that sort of familiarity in the regional," Cerny said. "It saved us a lot of running around. We were able to stay focused on the games."
Ursuline was hot, but few people expected the Irish to win a state title. The other state semifinalists had better records -- and, presumably, a better shot.
"We were the ugly ducklings," Cerny said.
And, in the first round at least, they won that way. Ursuline's 38-36 win over Gnadenhutten Indian Valley set Div. III records for fewest points by a team, by both teams and lowest winning score.
The Irish advanced to play the state's top-ranked team, undefeated Lima Central Catholic. Few expected them to win.
"But we had played 15 or 16 games by a bucket difference, so that experience played into our hands," Cerny said. "We knew if we kept it close, we had a chance."
The teams played back and forth for most of the game before LCC took a 53-48 lead with two minutes remaining. In the final minute, Central senior Aaron Hutchins -- Ohio's Mr. Basketball that season and an 85 percent free throw shooter -- missed the front end of three straight one-and-ones. Each time, the Irish got the rebound and scored.
Then, with 4.9 seconds remaining, Ursuline's Joel Howard made the front end of a one-and-one to tie the score at 53. He missed the second, grabbed the rebound and tossed the ball over his head. The ball hit the rim, senior forward Larry Senvisky grabbed the rebound and banked a tip-in with 0.7 seconds remaining.
"That was a magical last minute," Cerny said. "There was nothing like it. I've been excited after other games, but the excitement from that game has lasted 10 years."
So has the drought.
Since 1994, only three area teams have made it to the state tournament: East Liverpool (1999), Poland (2002) and Bristol (2002).
All three lost in the semifinals.
That's not likely to change this season. The area has several good teams, but none of them seem likely to compete with the basketball powerhouses from other parts of the state.
Poland coach Ken Grisdale has a reason for that.
"I don't know if you're going to want my answer, though," he said. "I think a lot of the time, you need to bring kids into the program from out of the area. You almost have to have an all-star team."
Grisdale experienced it firsthand in 2002. The Bulldogs had a 22-2 record entering the Div. II state semifinal, but were routed by Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, 76-36.
"Our group [in 2002] was pretty much made up of kids that were together from the beginning," Grisdale said. "We went up against a parochial schools that had LeBron James and the gang. It's hard to compete with that."
Especially in the higher divisions. Over the last six years, public schools have won just two titles in the top two divisions: Columbus Brookhaven in 2002 and Warrensville Heights in 2001.
"I think at the lower levels you still have a chance," Grisdale said. "That's probably your best bet."
And it's not just parochial schools that benefit from outside help. Girard and Campbell both had a player from the Bahamas on their state championship teams in 1993.
"The kid Girard had [Philip Huyler] was a great player, but the kid we got [Michael Farrington] really just worked his butt off and developed," said Danilov. "That [recruiting] issue has been blown out of proportion a little bit. We had some talented players that season."
More than talent
Of course, it takes more than talent to win a title.
"The guys on our '93 team were unselfish, they were committed to each other, they put in the time and they took care of business in the classroom and outside of it," Danilov said. "Champions are made when no one's watching. Are you out in the driveway dribbling ball or in the cellar practicing your drills? That's what it takes to be the best. And a lot of that's been lost."
Especially in the summer. Most state championship-caliber teams have players who focus solely on basketball, or at least work extensively on their game during the off-season.
"If you look at the best players around the state, most of them are playing AAU ball during the summer," said Fitch coach Gary Conroy. "Very few players in Youngstown do that. And once the good teams from this area get out of Youngstown and into the regional, they aren't as successful."
Conroy has two players -- senior guards Terrell Eargle, a Div. I recruit, and Mark Aikens -- who play AAU ball. Grisdale has one -- junior guard Chad Fender, also a Div. I recruit.
"There are some good elements in AAU ball, but there are a lot of snakes," Danilov said. "You have to find the coaches who try to help kids improve their skills and want to help them."
"You don't know what type of coaching your players are going to get," he said.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association also places restrictions on coaches who want to get involved in AAU basketball. Some of the coaches are more interested in making connections than developing players and many of the games emphasize style over substance.
Still, it's usually better than nothing.
"You need guys who do more than come to occasional open gyms," Conroy said. "You need guys who are looking for games. Guys who love to play and work on their games year-round.
"I think the teams around here are just starting to realize that."
That doesn't mean you can't play other sports.
Many of the area's best athletes also play football and coaches must find a balance between developing players and letting kids enjoy high school.
"I think a lot of kids are forced to specialize in one sport and parents and adults are making a mistake when they do that," said Grisdale. "You should be able to enjoy high school as much as possible."
Baseball players can play in Class B leagues during the summer and football players often travel across the state to go to summer camps.
Basketball can get overlooked.
"Basketball is a highly skilled sport -- maybe the one with the most skill involved," Danilov said. "In football, how much skill does it take to play on the offensive line? You just find a guy who likes to hit and put him in the weight room. All the great tailbacks, most of that is just instinct. Aside from quarterbacks, who do you have to develop?"
Danilov doesn't expect his players to focus solely on basketball, but he does expect them to work on their game year-round.
"A lot of kids just put the ball down and think they can pick it back up at the end of November," he said. "You can't."
So when will the state title drought end? It's hard to say.
After Columbiana won its title, area basketball fans had to wait 38 years to see another.
"I think that's real hard to predict," Grisdale said of winning state titles. "I think a lot of it is luck.
"In 1995-96, I might have had my best team ever, but we went to the Akron regional and had to play Orrville, which was the defending Div. III state champions. And if we had won, we would have had to play [Cleveland] Villa Angela-St. Joseph, which was the defending Div. II state champs."
Poland had an easier draw in 2002, but ran into SVSM in the semifinal. The Irish didn't even win the state title that season. Cincinnati Roger Bacon did.
"I think the most important thing is, you need players," Danilov said. "I'm always a great coach when I got players."
You also need the right players. Physical ability is nice, but you need mental toughness to survive the grind of a long season.
"These are young kids," Danilov said. "They might have a fight with their girlfriend that can screw them up for three days.
"And sometimes there are things they have to deal with that people don't know about. It always looks easy from the stands, but I'd like to plop some of these fans down on the court in front of 2,000 people and see how they do."
But for all the frustration, disappointment and heartache, there's always the chance that things will break your way. Cerny learned that lesson 10 years ago, and he's never forgotten it.
Robb Schmidt -- who is now the sports director at WKBN Channel 27 -- was a radio broadcaster during the 1994 season and he did the play-by-play for all of Ursuline's playoff games.
After the season, Schmidt gave Cerny a tape of the games. A few years later, Cerny moved to the Columbus area and bought a house. While he was painting the rooms, he took out the tape and listened to the games.
"It was interesting to relive those memories and hear his perspective on the game," Cerny said. "I remember a lot of those games like it was yesterday.
"That season was hard to forget. I don't want to forget. It was magnificent."