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Fighting Tigers plan of attack pushed NCH to the brink

COLUMBUS - There wasn't much time to draw up a game plan, so Ironton coach Roger Zornes kept it simple.

Attack.

Since the Division III state semifinals were on Friday and the championship game Saturday afternoon, the Ironton Fighting Tigers and North College Hill Trojans barely had enough time to erase the chalkboard, let alone devise a game plan.

But Zornes and his coaching staff of Greg Arden, Bart Burcham, Mark LaFon, Frank Lee, Joe Young and Joe Fraley huddled Friday night and emerged with a plan.

The plan worked well, but 8 for 18 foul shooting and some crucial turnovers late allowed the No. 1 ranked Trojans to escape with a 71-65 win and their first-ever state championship.

"We felt like we had a nice game plan. The kids followed our game plan to the letter. We spread them out and attacked them. We were right there," coach Zornes said. "We switched our defenses up so they wouldn't get comfortable. The 2-3 zone was doing well."

The "attack" mode was a good idea, but would it hold up against the much taller and athletic Trojans who featured Mr. Basketball O.J. Mayo? Zornes knew it would because of his team's mental toughness.

Zornes praised his inside players Cliff Howard, Marcus Williams and Joe Zornes for their play. In fact, Ironton held a 41-32 rebound advantage including Howard with 16 boards.

"Marcus had to guard 6-6 (Bill) Walker, and sometimes Joe had the 6-6 kid and he was playing on a fractured ankle. He doesn't have much mobility. Cliff was tired and he sucked it up," coach Zornes said. "(North College Hill) is a tremendously talented team. They're 6-11, 6-6, 6-7. They're a heck of a team. It was like playing an all-star team."

Not only did the Fighting Tigers face a team loaded with talent, they had to do it with an additional handicap.

"We looked like a M*A*S*H unit in the hotel (Friday) night. We're not making any excuses. We battled them. I have been more proud of this team than any team I've coached. They don't know the word quit," coach Zornes said.

Walker, a second team All-Ohio selection, said after the game that Ironton's physical style was a factor.

"The refs let them get away with a lot. It was pretty physical. They knew what they could do and they did it," said Walker who drew a technical foul for arguing with an official.

Ironton, 26-1 and ranked No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll, was led by the 6-4 Howard with 28 points and Dennis Gagai with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Both made the all-tournament team and both agreed that the physical play was to the Fighting Tigers' advantage.

"Friday prepared us because (Archbold) was stronger and more physical (than North College Hill)," Gagai said. "We had chances to win other than just those at the end of the game."

Howard dominated despite standing in the Trojans' forest of the 6-11 Keenan Ellis, the 6-7 Walker and the 6-5 Mayo. He said the Fighting Tigers ignored predictions that called for a 20-point or more win by North College Hill. The Trojans did not have a tournament win of less than 15 points.

"They weren't very strong. We knew we could play with them. We didn't care what the media said. Coach told us 'Don't be scared. Play with heart.' We did everything we felt we could do," Howard said.

Besides the inside play, coach Zornes said the shooting of Gagai and the all-around play of Brigham Waginger were critical toward Ironton's chances.

"Brigham had two steals in a row. I think he picked O.J. and Butler. They started to panic a little," coach Zornes said. "Dennis kept making big plays and hitting big shots."

But coach Zornes said North College Hill (27-1) showed why it was recently ranked No. 21 in the USA Today poll.

"They stepped up and made the big plays and that was the bottom line," coach Zornes said. "They're very good."