PDT Sports Writer
When Ironton coach Mark LaFon met with his players at the start of the basketball season, he addressed the big white elephant in the room.
The Fighting Tigers, who were in the regional tournament the previous two seasons, were expected by everyone in southeastern Ohio to be the region’s representative in the Division III State Tournament. Any result short of that goal would’ve been considered a failure.
“We might as well have embraced it,” LaFon said after Saturday night’s Division III Regional Final against Oak Hill. “We can act like it wasn’t being said… but to have a group like this go through and not have a Final Four berth, it would be a shame and I think we would’ve underachieved. In a lot of ways, I think we overachieved.”
Ironton avoided the hypothetical situation Saturday night by winning the school’s third regional championship in a 66-49 win over the Oaks at Ohio University’s Convocation Center. Thursday morning, the 23-2 Fighting Tigers will take on 24-3 Ottawa-Glandorf, who beat Bloom-Carroll 60-56 in overtime Saturday at Bowling Green State University, in the first semifinal of the day at Ohio State’s Jerome Schottenstein Center.
For the Titans, they will be taking on another team based along the Ohio River in their seventh all-time appearance into the state tournament. Last year, Ottawa-Glandorf lost to Portsmouth 74-66 in a Division III State Semifinal.
In two seasons at his alma mater, Titans coach Tyson McGlaughlin has taken the program to back-to-back trips to Columbus. He expects this year’s team to finish the goal they set out for a year ago.
“To have the opportunity to go back to state, I think the guys felt that pressure the entire year,” McGlaughlin said in Monday’s teleconference. “They didn’t let it bother them too much but in the back of your mind, I think they continued to think about it.”
The two teams could have played each other last year but a scoreless second quarter for Ironton against the Trojans in the regional finals sent Portsmouth to Columbus. LaFon gave a lot of credit this year to his senior class for accomplishing the goal they set out for since that loss.
“This group of seniors, what battlers they are,” LaFon said. “They let me challenge them and I challenge them. They let me do it, they’re a great group of kids.”
Headlining the senior class for the Fighting Tigers is 5-10 guard and Division III Southeast District Player of the Year Zac Carter. This postseason, he is averaging 25.4 points a game with three contests being over 30 points.
McGlaughlin could not ignore what Carter’s importance is to the opposition.
“He’s the real deal,” McGlaughlin said. “He’s very athletic, very quick with the ball. He’s one of those guys that I don’t think you’re going to totally shut down a player like Zac Carter but you have to contain him.”
The remaining starters for LaFon’s crew are all seniors. Joining Carter in the backcourt is 5-10 Josh Glover, 6-6 Trey Fletcher and 6-4 Trevor White, who LaFon felt made a major difference in Saturday’s win, operate from the forward spots while 6-4 Aaron Stephens is at the center position.
Coming off the bench will be senior Darius Boykin along with sophomores Joe Bowling and Tristan Cox. Ironton has won all five of its tournament games by an average margin of almost 26 points a contest with a 10-point win in the sectional finals over Wheelersburg as the closest anyone has reached.
McGlaughlin does see similarities and differences in the two Ohio River rivals.
“They do have a lot similarities as far as having good size down low,” McGlaughlin said in an interview with the Putnam County Sentinel. “The Fletcher kid down low is very good, he is very athletic and across the board last year I thought Portsmouth was just very strong (and) athletic.
“(Ironton is) wider. You look at the pounds and they are bigger than us and that concerns me down low in regards to rebounding… We haven’t seen that kind of size this season.”
The Titans will trot out the same starting five that he’s worked with since the start of the season, a factor he hopes will be in his team’s favor. Carter’s point guard counterpart will be Matt Kaufman with Division III Northwest District Player of the Year T.J. Metzger and Caleb Siefker as the other guards.
In the frontcourt will be Michael Rosebrock, a Third Team All-Ohio selection a year ago, and Noah Bramlage to a team that will typically go nine-deep. In last year’s state semis, all five of this year’s starters scored.
LaFon said he wasn’t caught up on the history of his opponent but told reporters during Monday’s teleconference that his staff would spend the night combing over scouting reports and tape.
“I know they’ve got a very rich tradition, very nice district and there’s great supporters of them,” LaFon said. “It shows in their kids and how they play. They play with a lot of passion and a lot of discipline on the floor.”
The winner of this contest will take on the winner of the Versailles-Leavittsburg LeBrae game that follows. The Division III Championship will be decided in a 10:45 a.m. tip Saturday.
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or email@example.com.