NORWALK — When St. Paul basketball coach Mike Smith got the ceremonial Gatorade bath, he was glad the cooler actually didn't contain any of the athletic drink.
“I’m feeling good, but thank God, it wasn’t Gatorade; it was just water," he said. "I told the guys earlier, ‘It was worth it.'"
St. Paul earned a share of the Firelands Conference championship with a 60-48 win Friday over Plymouth inside Fr. Harvey Keller Gymnasium at the St. Paul Convocation Center. The Flyers ended the regular season 14-8 and 12-2, which gave them their first league championship since the 1997-98 season.
St. Paul has won seven FC titles overall.
“Obviously, I feel great. These guys right here were the only ones (who) could believe they could win," said Smith, who noted South Central and Western Reserve had "loaded teams."
“I’m real proud of these kids because you know, they came to play every night and went through a tough stretch recently — and we played a brutal, brutal schedule,” he said. “We could have felt sorry for ourselves, but they kept bringing it to practice and it’s very gratifying as a coach.
“It’s nice that we do it here at home and we want to carry this momentum into (the) tournament, but right now we just want to enjoy tonight.”
Senior Jordan Shepherd led St. Paul in his last home game with 22 points and nine rebounds.
“I knew it was my last game on the home court and I had to give it my all, so I blocked everybody out,” said the son of Jacob and Alaina Konik.
Shepherd scored eight of the Flyers' 12 first-quarter points. The home team led 12-7 to end the quarter.
Most of Shepherd’s first-half points came from assists via junior Scotty Adelman, who had eight on the night to go with five rebounds.
“He had quite of few passes to me from (taking) the ball out of bounds. … We have pretty good chemistry as a team,” Shepherd said.
Senior Brandon Furlong scored 13 points while junior Nate Winslow contributed 12 points and seven rebounds.
St. Paul went into the locker room up 27-19. The Flyers increased their speed in the second half and although Plymouth kept pace, St. Paul ended the third quarter with a 40-31 lead.
“I know we had some calls go against us, but we overcame those calls and powered through it for the Firelands Conference championship,” Shepherd said. “We put in a lot of hard work. We’ve been looking for this since (the) summer and it paid off as a team."
Plymouth ended the season at 9-13 overall and 4-10 in the FC.
Coach Marty McKenzie said St. Paul’s offensive rebounding was a big factor Friday.
“We were getting pushed around on the boards,” he said. “I think in the first half they had 12 points on second-chance opportunities and that was kinda the ball game.
“We started three sophomores most of the year. We had a couple returning lettermen when the season started, but we really only had one player (who) had any varsity playing experience,” McKenzie added. “We never settled on a starting lineup. I have started 13 different starting lineups; I had rewarded guys from practice and got them in the next week."
Some of Plymouth's challenges this season was developing a shooter early.
“We have some ball-handlers to take Walker Elliott’s spot next year. Our jayvee team got plenty of experience; there are going to be three or four who are going to come up and help us. We’re going to lose five seniors; we’re going to lose half our scoring and half our rebounding, but we’ve got a lot of experience coming back and that’s what we didn’t have coming back this year,” McKenzie said.
“If we get a good summer in, we’ll be a different ball club next year. I will have three juniors (and) a couple seniors next year (who) now have 22 games under their belt. Zeth Goth is going to be a player for us. Clayton Miller started the year on jayvee (and) he ended up being one of my leading scorers."
Looking back at St. Paul's season, Smith said persistence was key ingredient.
“We won the games we needed to,” he said. “We held court at home against the top dogs and that’s (why) we’re sitting here tonight.
“We played a tough schedule and it wasn’t like we got blown out; we were in all those games. We had chances to win,” Smith added.
“You gotta keep persisting and when things don’t go your way, it shows what kind of person you are by how you handle that. You try to pick yourself back up. … We went through some difficult times and we kept telling ourselves, ‘Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s keep grinding.’ It’s been a grind, but very well worth it.”
In the junior varsity game Friday, St. Paul (12-10) topped Plymouth, 44-40. Sophomore Travis Herner led the Flyers with 14 points and classmate Kaden Maxwell swished in 12.
Plymouth junior Josh Yoder scored 13 points.
"He gave up varsity minutes (this season) so the JV team could keep playing," said McKenzie, who called him a "total team player."
PLYMOUTH (9-13, 4-10)
Clayton Miller 4-0—11; Walker Elliott 4-2—10; Brody Brown 1-0—3; Josh Beebe 2-2—6; Josh Cox 2-0—4; Seth Goth 3-5—12. TOTALS 16-11—48.
ST. PAUL (14-8, 12-2)
Scott Adelman 1-0—2; Nick Winslow 3-3—9; Brandon Furlong 5-2—13; Jude Sweet 1-0—2; Nate Winslow 3-6—12; Jordan Shepherd 10-2—22. TOTALS 23-13—60.
Plymouth 7 12 12 17 — 48
St. Paul 12 15 13 20 — 60
3-point FGs: (P) Miller (3), Brown, Goth; (SP) Furlong
JV: St. Paul 44-40