ONTARIO – More than a century in the making, it’s happening Friday night. Oddly it didn’t take a petition or an act of legislation to make it happen, just a need for an opponent.
For the first time ever, Mansfield Senior and Ontario — the two best boys basketball programs in Richland County over the last 25 years — will meet each other in a game that counts.
“I was told by my athletic director that we’re playing the first game of the season over there,” Mansfield Senior coach JT Reese said.
Ontario coach Joe Balogh, the dean of north central Ohio coaches, said when the North Central Conference broke up and formed the Northern 10, which plays 16 to 18 league games, finding nonleague opponents within a reasonable drive became more difficult. Both schools sent out feelers for potential nonleague games, and the athletic directors saw a tantalizing matchup for high school hoops junkies in the area.
“Over the years I’ve been here, there have been years where we thought we could compete with Senior High, and there were other years where we wouldn’t be able to compete with them,” Balogh said. “It’s a situation with us going to Division II now, if we would ever make that longer tournament run, it would be a situation where we would play athletic teams like a Senior High. It will be a good test for us to see where we’re at this early in the season.”
According to Andrew Ebbeskotte’s CrawfordCountyBasketball.com, Ontario faced Malabar 19 times and won six games, but never played the Tygers. Mansfield Senior hasn’t had a losing season since 1992-93, while Ontario’s only had three since Balogh took over in 1985-86. Both programs have taken multiple trips to the regional, made state appearances and been regular presences in the AP state poll over the years.
That Ontario and Mansfield Senior are hooking up at 7:30 p.m. Friday night in the Orena makes the opening of boys basketball season all the more special.
“What’s enjoyable for me is I like to get my kids a chance to show their talent locally,” Reese said. “This is a nice stage for our kids to show their talent and our kids deserve that.”
Added Balogh: “I think our kids are really excited about the opportunity. A lot of our kids know a lot of their kids.”
The Tygers are two years removed from a regional runner-up finish. Last year, Senior High was 16-8, Ohio Cardinal Conference runners-up and Division I sectional champs.
“Overall, we’re a lot further along than we were last year at this time and the reason being is the eight seniors we have now were juniors,” Reese said, adding that they are reviewing instead of teaching. “Now we’re into the second level of some of the stuff that we do. Hopefully on Friday night you’ll get to see some of that.”
Two years ago, Ontario won a piece of the Northern Ohio League title in its first year in the conference and finished No. 1 in the Division II AP poll. Last year, the Warriors again won the NOL and finished No. 3 in the state poll, while ending as D-II district runners-up with a 24-2 record.
Balogh has a mix of veterans and newcomers and thinks he has a deep bench for 2015-16.
“You don’t actually know until you open up,” Balogh said.
It’s a big weekend for Senior High. Saturday at 4:30 p.m., the Tygers travel to Wilmington College to play the two-time defending state champs from Indiana, Park Tudor, in the Ohio Valley Hoops Classic. Reese got the invitation just days after upsetting Dayton Dunbar last winter, and he relishes the challenge of playing an elite program from basketball-crazy Indiana.
“High school basketball in Indiana is where it’s at, flat out. I’m talking crowd. I’m talking all the stuff that you think high school basketball should be; it’s over there. They take it serious and I like that,” he said.
But the first order of business for both teams is Friday night’s historic matchup.
“It’s a thing where over the years we kind of looked at it as a what-if thing and now the what-if is it’s going to happen,” Balogh said. “It will be a really good test for us, especially being opening night to see where we’re at.”
Basketball Overviews Coming
The area’s boys basketball capsules and overview story will be in the Thursday edition of the News Journal as well as online at MansfieldNewsJournal.com.