By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
Four years ago, Ryan Fitch took over the Pymatuning Valley Lakers’ program and had the enormous task of following the highly successful six-year run of Jeremy Huber.
If Friday night was any indication of how’s he done, then well, he’s been quite successful guiding his squad to their second Northeastern Athletic Conference title during his tenure as a suffocating Laker defense did enough in their 41-23 victory over the Lordstown Red Devils.
“Our defense has been our strength all year,” Fitch said. “We’re only giving up an average of 43 points a game. That has definitely been one of our strengths this season. I give it all up to the kids.
“They bought into what we were trying to do four years ago when I took over. We’re reaping the benefits of that now.”
The Lakers’ defense was all the more impressive considering they ran a seven-man rotation for the night in limiting the Red Devils (9-12, 8-5 NAC) to zero points in the opening quarter and just two points in the pivotal third quarter coming out of a tied game at 14.
The first half could easily be described as an up and down affair with the Lakers (16-4, 11-2 NAC) coming out strong for the most part in the opening quarter, clinging to a 10-0 advantage.
Then matters got ugly as Fitch saw a quarter that he described as one where his team got too casual with the ball and lost any type of intensity getting outscored, 12-2.
“In both quarters, we had our opportunities to score and we knew we weren’t going to have a large volume of points to keep this at the pace we wanted,” Lordstown coach Brent Villella said. “We really weren’t too disappointed how we played in the first (quarter). Our kids, though, responded really well in the second (quarter) outscoring them.”
Coming off a back-to-back against Badger, it was disheartening for Fitch after a strong opening quarter, but while his team was able to turn it on in the second half, Villella believed the complexion of the game changed drastically in a 90-second span as his team struggled getting any type of offensive consistency.
“Really it was that segment in the third quarter where we weren’t good with situational basketball and (PV) is extremely good and extremely well coached,” Villella said. “Once we got down, it became their pace which they are really good at playing.”
That change was the play of Tim Cross and Quintin Ratliff. A steal by Cross and ensuing assist to Ratliff opened up a tight game and in turn made it a double-digit affair at 24-14 heading into the final quarter.
Ratliff was big on the defensive end as well with three steals turning to coast-to-coast fast breaks.
“He’s just a tremendous athlete and a great player,” Fitch said. “When he plays like that, there aren’t many people who can stop him.”
Ratliff led the Lakers with 13 points, but the story coming into the game was that of Tim Cross sitting at 981 points for his Lakers’ career.
In the opening quarter, it looked like he was on pace to get the 19 points needed to eclipse 1,000 points scoring five of the Lakers’ first 10 points. He would only score one point for the rest of the game but his five assists and five steals were much needed in the second half to get the Lakers’ a tough hard-fought victory.
“He, obviously, knows he’s close,” Fitch said. “I don’t think we was pressing too hard to get it. I just think we came out with a lack of intensity and that carried our through the whole game.
“Teams are, obviously, going to key on him and put their best defenders on him... double-team him and run and trap him. He’ll get it in the next two games here. It’ll be a great accomplishment for a great young man.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.