Orrville’s basketball brotherhood banded together all season

As the Orrville Red Riders (17-9) headed into their Div. III Canton Regional boys basketball semifinal game with Cleveland Heights Lutheran East (19-8) on Wednesday, March 13, the Red Riders knew they were playing with house money. Orrville just came up short of cashing in on another big tournament victory when they fell 63-50 to the much bigger Falcon lineup.

While the Red Rider faithful might call Canton’s Memorial Field House Orrville’s home away from home due to the program’s past successes on the hallowed floor, the fact of the matter is the Riders were making their first regional appearance since 2012 and found themselves facing a Falcons team that swooped into the regionals for a fourth straight season in search of a third straight regional title. Despite Orrville’s success on the gridiron next door on the turf of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, where the Red Riders won the Div. IV State Championship this past December, not even the most faithful red and white fanatic expected the undersized Red Rider hoopsters to be playing this deep into the tournament.

Lutheran East’s regular season schedule in February was stacked with tough competition that saw the Falcons survive the month with a 4-3 record with wins over Warrensville Heights, Richmond Heights, Bedford and Maple Heights while coming up short against St. Edward, St. Vincent-St. Mary and Lorain. The late season stretch against some D1 programs battle tested the Falcons in preparation for a strong tournament run, and the lessons learned paid off for the Falcons.

Nehemiah Benson struggled to find any room to maneuver against Orrville’s defense early on in the game, but he certainly came alive and dominated in the second half of play on his way to scoring a game-high 18 points.

Orrville started the game ready to play. Despite giving up a serious size advantage, the Riders foot speed allowed them to play the style of basketball that got them to this point in the tournament. The Red Riders found themselves with a two-point lead, 9-7, after the end of the opening quarter.

The second quarter of play found both teams making offensive adjustments. Orrville had kept Benson in check, but the Falcons didn’t let that slow them down as five other players filled the scoring column to help Lutheran East build a four-point, 24-20 lead at the half. Meanwhile it was the senior duo of Cayden McDaniel and Ben Summers who kept the Riders on the offensive attack. McDaniel scored five points for the quarter; Summers had four. The only other player to score in the period for Orrville was sophomore guard D’Vontez Brown, who finished with eight points for the game.

Orrville’s swarming defense in the first half held Lutheran East’s biggest weapon, the 6′ 6″ Benson, in check with a very quiet four points. But Benson and company came out the second half and were on a mission to get the ball to the play-maker. The junior post went to work, dismantling the Rider defensive front from both inside and out on his way to 14 second-half points.

Slaughter was impressed by his effort. “Benson said enough was enough and was determined to get the ball. He hit some tough shots with us hanging on him. But they had some other guys step up and play well. Blevins hit a couple of big shots in the first half; Albert hit a couple of big pull-ups right when we were making a run there in the fourth quarter. Lutheran East is who they are for a reason, and that’s because they have weapons.”

What may have been the turning point in the game was when Orrville’s full-court press began to wreck havoc on the Falcon’s ability to get the ball past the timeline. The Riders were on a 7-0 run and had trimmed the Falcon’s lead to only a four-point, 49-45 lead with 5:28 left in the game when Domer snatched another steal and took off down the floor in route to an open lane, but when the senior gathered himself for a two-footed jam, his knee appeared to have buckled, and the ball didn’t make it to the basket.

Slaughter agreed it was a pivotal moment of the game. “We were down four, he gets a steal, was getting ready to dunk it, and our student section and crowd were ready to go wild, which would have probably forced them to call timeout with only a two-point lead. Instead, we don’t end up scoring on that possession, and they go down and hit a three to give them a seven-point lead. That was kind of our last gasp there; we ran out of gas at that point.”

McDaniel did everything he could in the fourth quarter, scoring seven points in the final frame to keep the Riders within reach. In the end it was Benson and company who would prove to be too much for Orrville to rally past as the Falcons eventually stretched their lead to double digits to seal the 63-50 victory to advance to the Canton Regional final against Mogadore.

While the Red Riders’ tournament run into the regional semifinal might have surprised a few folks, Slaughter said his squad lived up to their own expectations before the season started. “In our first meeting of the season we said that we had enough talent to get to where we are at tonight. All season we just talked about being able to prove it. We have some guys who like to talk, so we kept telling them to prove it, and I think over the course of the season they proved that we were a pretty good basketball team. With our effort tonight, I think we showed that we have a lot of heart too.”

“We weren’t going to change who we are. We got here being who we are, and it’s a testament to our kids as there were a couple of times tonight in the second half where I wanted to try and go zone and they waved me off and said they wanted to stay matched up man to man because that’s what we do. That’s who we are. Sometimes it’s nice to have these kids remind me of who I am and that’s a man-to-man defensive coach. I’m just totally proud of the way our kids worked. I’ve really enjoyed coaching this team. We have a lot of characters, guys that are just really fun to be around.”

Orrville’s three seniors played their guts out and left it all on the floor in their final game together. McDaniel finished the game leading the Red Riders in scoring with 17 points, Summers had 14 points and Logan Domer finished with six. Slaughter had high praise for the trio. “Cayden, Logan and Ben have seen and been through a lot in their careers. I could not be more proud or happy for those three guys. Each of them continuously told me every season that they wanted to get to the Field House. To have the level of success that Logan and Ben had in football and then making it to the Field House makes it a pretty good senior year so far. Hopefully Logan can do some good things in baseball; Ben can finally get his shoulder fixed. Cayden is going to move on and be a great person. I’m really happy with the way that he has matured over the last three years.”

In addition to Benson’s big night, Lutheran East’s T.J. Bevins (11 points) and E.J. Farmer (10 points) also had solid nights for the Falcons. It was a far different scoring result than Lutheran’s East’s district final game in which Benson, Farmer, Collin Albert and Sirr Hughes combined for 76 of the Falcons’ 80 total points. Against Orrville, that grouping of four players combined for 40, which shows the depth of Lutheran East’s bench and how it can cause nightmares for opposing teams.

The scariest thing of all for Lutheran East’s future opponents might be the fact that this Falcons team only dresses one nonstarting senior.

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