Battle of the unbeatens

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 14, 2005

It's No. 2 vs. No. 3 in the Associated Press, but it's a battle for No. 1 in Lawrence County.

In a battle of two 18-0 teams, the No. 2 ranked Chesapeake Panthers will play at the No. 3 ranked Ironton Fighting Tigers Tuesday in a much anticipated regular season showdown.

Despite the hype and the expected standing room only crowd that should reach near 3,000 fans, Chesapeake coach Norm Persin and Ironton coach Roger Zornes are not overemphasizing the match up.

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"I'm trying to approach it as just another regular season game," Zornes said. "It's going to be a tough game, but it's just another game. We're both just trying to get ready for the tournament."

Persin said a lot of importance has been placed on the game because the two teams are unbeaten, but he prefers to look at the whole picture.

"This is another game. I hope we meet again just for the fact that would mean we're both in the regionals," Persin said.

"We're two of the best teams in southeast Ohio and two of the best teams in Ohio, but is it do or die? I don't think so. I think the whole key is how the teams respond after this game. That might be the most important thing."

The anticipation for fans has been like waiting for the Heinz ketchup to come out of the bottle. However, the coaches said their players have kept the game in perspective.

"It'll be a good challenge. They have a good team, a good coach and a good tradition. It'll be a good battle for us," Zornes said. "We've had a lot of tough games, so we've had to take each game one at a time. Now it's time for Chesapeake and then we'll move on to the next game."

Persin praised both teams not looking ahead even though it was a topic before the season began.

"Neither team would be 18-0 if they were looking ahead," Persin said.

Ironton figures to go with its regular starting lineup of guards Dennis Gagai and Brigham Waginger, forwards Joe Zornes and Marcus Williams, and center Cliff Howard.

Off the bench are Brent McBride, Greg Linn, Patrick Kouns and Brian Wirzfeld.

Gagai averages 16.9 points and 4.0 rebounds, Waginger gets 15.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 6.5 assists. Zornes is in double figures at 11.0 points and has 3.2 rebounds, Howard 9.6 points and 6.0 rebounds, and Williams 6.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Chesapeake will counter with guards P.J. Rase and Trent Finley, forwards Justin Porter and Dustin O'Brien, and center Brennan Hall. Matt Whitmore and Brent Ransbottom figure prominently in the Panthers plans.

Rase leads the Panthers in scoring with 14.5 points a game, 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists. Hall gets 10 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, Finley - a long-range threat - 9.0 points a game, defensive specialist Porter 7.0 points, Ransbottom 6.0 rebounds and Matt Whitmore 5.0 rebounds.

"We're pretty balanced. We have a lot of kids who can contribute.

Both teams have easily beaten common opponents making the outcome even more unpredictable. Persin said Ironton may have the edge.

"Ironton has an advantage because they're playing at home," Persin said. "But it's going to be a big crowd and it's going to be loud. And that's good. Both teams are used to that. Now both teams have to step up and play."

Tip off is set for 7:30 p.m.