"This isn't the Lordstown from years past."
McDonald coach Jeff Rasile said this following his team's 85-72 win over Lordstown last Friday, and it's a good description for the 2013-2014 Lordstown boys basketball team.
The Red Devils haven't necessarily been doormats these past few years, but they haven't been contending for Northeastern Athletic Conference and district championships either.
The last time Lordstown made it past the sectional-final round came in 2007, when the Red Devils lost in the district semifinals to Maplewood, and although they've won a couple of tournament games since then (the last in 2012), they've bowed out more often after their first game.
Just looking at Lordstown's record early this season (2-4), it's easy to write off the Red Devils again, but that record is misleading. Lordstown has lost three non-conference games against Newton Falls, Youngstown Christian and McDonald by an average margin of defeat just above nine points, and the other loss came at Bristol on Dec. 13, 64-55.
For the Red Devils to end this losing streak tonight against Ledgemont, forward Nick Johnson will be the key for Lordstown, as shown in the team's loss to McDonald when he accumulated 24 points in the first half alone. His movement in the low post is smooth, and his finishing makes him a huge threat.
Add a couple of sharp 3-point shooters from a large senior class, and it's easy to see why first-year coach Brian Force believes his team will contend for a NAC Stripes Division title.
"I preach to our kids - we're playing for January," Force said. "If we can play with that kind of effort, I think we have a chance to make a run in our league, and that's what we're shooting for."
Force and Co. will know whether they are ready to challenge the defending league champs (Bristol) on Jan. 10, when the Red Devils face another program on the rise in the conference - Chalker.
The Wildcats are very similar to Lordstown in terms of triumphs over the past few years, with the last postseason run occurring during a district-final run in 2008. The Wildcats haven't won a tournament game since then.
Things are looking up, however, as the Wildcats started the season off at 3-0 and are now 4-3. The Wildcats are overall a young team that starts two to three sophomores on a consistent basis and have enough senior leadership to give them a chance this year.
"Coach (Mike) Karr does a good job, and he's been coaching that sophomore group since they were little," Bristol coach Craig Giesy said after the Panthers' 78-54 win on Dec. 20. "That program is going to be very good. It's good right now - it's going to be very good in the future."
Chalker has already shown an ability to play well against the better teams in the NAC, keeping it close against Bristol for an entire half and going to Mecca and playing Maplewood tight for the better part of three quarters.
"We've got a ways to go," Karr said following Chalker's 61-47 loss at Maplewood on Dec. 28. "But we're going in the right direction, so I'm happy to see that."
Other coaches might not be so happy to see or hear that.