By RICH KELLY
For the Star Beacon
Sometimes a team has a special moment during a game when things suddenly fall into place on a positive note. Whether that moment happened Friday night in Garcia Gymnasium for the Conneaut Spartans is still debatable, but coach Tim Tallbacka’s squad gave everybody a lot of positives to ponder before falling to a Kirtland Hornet team playing its season opener due to a run to a state football title.
A Kyle Sprinkle 3-pointer at the first half buzzer sent the Spartans into the locker room with a 32-29 lead. Conneaut (0-4) had momentum, and had put the ball into the hole for nearly a 50 percent clip, at 14-29 from the floor.
The pace played by both teams proved to be too much, though, as Kirtland stayed hot and the Spartans did not as the Hornets spoiled Conneaut’s home opener, 68-57.
“Coach (Matt) Ridgeway does a great job of having his team ready to play,” Tallbacka said. “He has a great team, they are athletic, and they are disciplined in what they want to do and sticking to it. We worked very hard tonight, and did a good job keeping up with them. I don’t know for sure, maybe we got a little tired in the second half, but we have no excuses for a lack of size or experience any more.
“It’s a matter of putting the ball into the basket when you get good shots. I think we missed five or six layups tonight, especially in the second half. We made those shots in the first half, and we were right there with them.”
Strong Spartan defense in the first half allowed only Sam Smith to do much offensively for the Hornets. A Tommy Loncar layup tied the score at 42-42 midway through the third period.
Backup point guard Matt Grazia hit the second of his three 3-pointers to snap the tie, and the run continued until Kirtland had taken a 56-43 lead after another trey from Anthony Veneri with 5:49 to play.
Conneaut battled, but didn’t have the energy to overcome the 3-12 result in shooting in the third period. Shooting 2-13 from the fourth sealed the deal as the Spartans showed major improvements in many facets but still were unable to translate it all into a win.
“The kids are really learning to play,” Tallbacka said. “Kyle (Sprinkle) is doing a good job running the offense. He’s shooting well, and doing a good job of staying within his abilities. He and Richie Burr are learning when to drive to the basket and when to pull that ball out, and Dylan Campbell is stepping up and providing solid senior leadership.
“I see him now as a good shooter, and he is doing the little things like rotations and doing whatever it takes anywhere on the floor to give us a chance to win.”
“I told the kids before the game that Conneaut will give us a battle,” Hornet coach Matt Ridgeway said. “They hustle the whole time. Tim keeps them busy working for everything they can get, and they gave us a run for our money tonight. We’ve only practiced together for a week once the football players got in, and we showed some good things tonight, but there’s still a lot to work on.”
Kirtland’s total team effort just proved to be an edge.
All nine players scored, with Smith leading with 16 and Aaron Madden netting 15. They controlled the backboards in the second half, though, in winning that battle with a 38-28 edge after the teams battled evenly in the first half. Tommy Loncar led the way with 10 rebounds.
Keying the scoring for the Hornets was Grazia scoring all of his nine points in the second half and Veneri adding seven of his nine in the second half as well.
Campbell paced a tenacious effort for the Spartans with 19 points, Sprinkle added 12 on 4-5 shooting to go with four rebounds and five assists, and Jacob Spees, Rickie Burr, and Ryan Oatman each added eight points.
Oatman’s efforts included 6-8 in the fourth quarter as he battled inside against the taller Hornet front line.
“It may have been a coaching mistake on my part to get into a track meet with Conneaut like we did in the first half,” he said. “Our football players are in good shape, but not basketball shape yet. We were a bit fumble-fingered for a while, so we were able to go into our half court defense in the second half and it worked out well.
“We scored 40 points almost, and our rotations were much better. We shot better, stopped Conneaut’s shooting, especially inside, and it turned into a good opener for us.”
Kelly is a freelance writer from Jefferson.