LUCASVILLE – Valley has not only turned heads this basketball postseason, they’ve opened a lot of eyes to what’s happening in Lucasville in the process. After last Friday’s sectional final upset over second seeded Eastern Brown, the ten seeded Indians clinched their first trip to the district tournament in Athens since 2016. We sat down with Valley head coach Eric Horton for a question and answer session to find out what the mindset is of his team with their district semifinal game Saturday night against Albany Alexander looming.
Q: Coming into the season, we talked about how you wanted to give these kids some stability that they haven’t seen in their high school basketball careers. How has this run so far helped secure things in that aspect?
A: I am the 3rd coach these seniors have played for in their careers. They haven’t been able to learn a system and really improve themselves as basketball players within that system. They have had different coaches emphasizing different aspects of the game, so they were constantly learning and changing without ever being settled within the same coaching philosophy. This year, I’ve simplified our system and we as a team have worked on trying to improve in just a couple different areas of the game. By staying very simple offensively and defensively, the players have been able to not only learn a new system, but really improve under that system to put us into the position we are in right now.
Q: How have your kids stepped up their play during the postseason to be able to knock off a couple higher seeded teams this postseason?
A: I have put a major emphasis on not only defense, but physical defense. Playing physical defense takes a certain mindset as well as a learned skill set on what is and is not a foul within playing physical. It has taken the entire year for our players to learn how to play defense in a physical manner without fouling. We are finally to the point of being able to play defense without thinking about it. We’re just reacting to the offense. This minor change has enabled us to play quicker defensively, and by playing quicker, our defense is playing a whole lot better and it shows with holding Paint Valley and Eastern Brown to 44 and 42 points in the sectional.
Q: What does a run like this do, not just for this team, but also for people taking notice of what you guys are trying to build here?
A: This run has given our players confidence in what we have been trying to do all year. Now that we are having some tournament success, it helps to build trust in each other and the system we have started to put into place. That trust will carry over into the summer and next season with the returning players. It has shown everybody within the team that when we play our game, then we are capable of beating anybody. I want to build Valley basketball into one of the premier programs in southern Ohio. This tournament run will help us take the next step in building this program up to the elite level.
Q: Three seniors, three guys who have been constant for this program during their careers. What does it mean to see their hard work pay off and be able to make it to the Convo?
A: I am so thrilled for those 3 players. Andrew Shope, Tanner Cunningham, and Tyler Mitchell have put so much of their heart and effort in this season and to see them rewarded with a sectional championship is amazing. Whenever there is a coaching change then roles get adjusted to fit into the new system. Even with their adjusted roles, they have not complained or been upset about their roles within the team. They go out every day in practice and every game and fulfill their individual roles to put the team in the best position to win each night. They have also been tremendous leaders for this program. Shope and Mitchell are the two hardest working players on the team. The two of them are always guarding the other team’s best players. They meet every game and opposing player with a determination that helps to elevate our level of play every night. The reward of playing at the Convo couldn’t have happened to three better kids.
Q: Tyler Mitchell and Mason Zaler, it feels like their play has stepped in a big way this postseason. Do you agree?
Tyler Mitchell has probably had his three best games of his career in the last three games we’ve played. And it’s not because of what he is doing offensively. He has held Tanner Holden to 15 points in the last regular season game, Bryce Newland for Paint Valley averaged 15 points on the year and he held him to 10 points. Coltan Vaughn for Eastern Brown only had six points in the sectional final. When you can take one of the main scoring threats for the other team and hold them to 10 or under, then it becomes much easier to win those games. You add in the fact that Mitchell lead us in scoring with Mason at 16 points against Paint Valley and he becomes an offensive threat as well.
Mason Zaler lead us in scoring against Paint Valley with 16 points. He had nine points against Eastern Brown, all in the 4th quarter. The biggest thing Mason has done is rebound. He had 17 rebounds against Paint Valley and seven against Eastern Brown. In the 4th quarter, Mason has been able to control the glass which helps us to close out games. He had five of his 17 rebounds in the 4th against Paint Valley. He had four of his seven in the 4th against Eastern Brown.
Both Tyler and Mason give our team something that nobody else on our team could give us. When they are playing at a higher level, it makes the games easier on our guards which lead to better scoring opportunities within our offense.
Q: How do you think your guys will respond to being on a big stage in Athens with a spot in the district finals on the line?
A: It is always a question mark on how players are going to respond the first time they play at the Convo, but I think our players will handle it just fine. Shope and Cunningham were there as freshmen, so it’s a return trip for them. For everybody else, this will be their 1st time stepping onto the Convo floor. We just have to settle in as quickly as possible and realize that it is just another basketball game. Once the emotions and the initial adrenaline wear off, then it’s a game just like the other 23 we have played this year. The quicker we settle in, the better off we’re going to be.
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT