Down 17 points on a rival’s home court, to be exact.
Nine days after a 69-53 home loss to Vermilion to start 2019, the Willard boys basketball team went on the road to face its longtime nemesis in Shelby.
The Whippets dominated the second quarter, putting the Crimson Flashes in a 36-19 halftime hole.
Not only did Willard rally to win — but it had tied it up by the end of the third quarter of a 67-58 win. The Flashes had even fallen behind again by six points in the fourth quarter, which marked a third straight victory at the time.
“A year ago, or anytime before in my tenure, we would have just folded,” Willard coach Joe Bedingfield said Last season, WIllard was 6-18 in his first season as head coach. “But these kids refused to accept the moral victory of just coming back. Ever since then, they feel like they can compete with anyone and win.”
The regular season finale is Friday night at Huron, and the Flashes haven’t lost since that home setback to the Sailors. Winners of 13 straight games, Willard (18-3, 9-2) suddenly finds itself playing for its first league championship in 13 years.
With a win over the host Tigers (10-9, 7-4), the Flashes will share the Sandusky Bay Conference Bay Division championship with Vermilion (17-5, 10-2).
“It’s nice to have someone like Dave Hirschy on your bench who had been down in that spot before,” Bedingfield said of his assistant, and former Willard head coach. “He was very positive in his approach to kids at halftime of the Shelby game. He calmly explained how they could get right back in the game.
“It also doesn’t hurt to have the caliber of players we have who can score in bunches as well,” Bedingfield said. “But I think that was a big key. Everyone remained positive. I think that night is where I thought we were getting somewhere with these kids; winning a game like that.”
During their winning streak, the Flashes haven’t had a game decided by a single possession. Only one game, a 54-48 victory at Vermilion on Feb. 8, has been decided by two possessions or less.
Only four of the 13 games have been closer than seven points. That surge has not only put Willard within one victory of a league championship, but also gave it the No. 1 seed at the Division III Norwalk district over Upper Sandusky, who it lost to at home by 24 points to open the season on Nov. 30.
“I think it’s important this time of year to be able to play on the road in a tough environment, and we have done that at Shelby and Vermilion,” Bedingfield said. “We have done a good job with our half-court defense. You can’t teach height, and we have it. We also have five guys on the floor who can score the basketball who are focused on being unselfish.
“When you have guys like that who are sharing the ball and playing hard, other teams can’t just focus in on one kid,” he added. “We’ve been able to do that really well these last six weeks.”
The tradition of Willard basketball needs little introduction in area circles, and Huron County in general. From the legendary run under Bob Haas (1972-93), and the dominant stretch under Greg Nossaman (1999-08) — Willard won 22 league, 16 district and four regional championships.
This is already Willard’s best season since it went 24-1 as regional runners-up in 2005-06. That was the final season of the area’s all-time points leader, Jimmy Langhurst (2,199), who had followed the tremendous stretch of Nick Dials (2,180).
Reflecting on the glory days of years past is inescapable for anyone within the Willard program. However, Bedingfield has stressed a slightly different approach to it with his team.
“We came in with a slogan to ‘create your tradition’ here a couple of years ago,” he said. “It’s about these kids now and the opportunities they have in front of their faces.
“It’s exciting for the community, and it’s been nice to see some of the people who were here when No. 12 (Langhurst) was roaming the court and hadn’t been to a game in a while,” Bedingfield added. “We’re not necessarily living in the past too much, but focused on seeing what these kids can do. But it’s special to rekindle some of those feelings, and it feels a lot better now than where we were a year ago.”
Willard is led by junior Cooper Parrott, the OHSBCA District 6 Player of the Year in Div. III. He averages 18.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
Davon Triplett adds 11.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while Terry Baldridge averages 11 points and 6.8 rebounds. Myles Pinkston is averaging 9.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest, while Bedingfield also notes Brevon Polachek (9.3 points, 3.3 assists) has been a key contributor.
“Brevon has been playing a lot better, he’s a three-year player for us and doesn’t always get notoriety he deserves,” Bedingfield said. “It’s about sharing the ball, defending and rebounding. If we can do those three things, we can continue this successful streak we’ve been on.
Bedingfield has also been pleased with his ability to go deep on the bench, where he’s getting contributions from Jerrett Sowers, Joey Holida, Austin Adelman, Trey Paxton and Micah Dawson.
“Those are a few kids who might not be stars in the boxscore, but they do their roles and don’t complain about it,” he said. “A lot of the credit goes to the kids and the work they’ve put into it. There is a buy-in process that goes with winning, and we’re fortunate to have gotten better as the season went on.”
Although the Tigers enter Friday’s game one game above .500, they have wins over league champions Vermilion (17-5), Norwalk (18-3) and Western Reserve (15-4), as well as a road wins at Margaretta (15-6) and St. Mary C.C. (16-5).
Willard handled Huron at home on Jan. 11, 77-60. Drew Wennes averages 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds for the Tigers.
“They’ve been playing well, which is a credit to (head coach) Bobby James, because typically his teams always get better as the season progresses,” Bedingfield said. “We have to focus on the things we can control and make it about playing our best for 32 minutes.
“For a lot of our kids, this is their first winning season in high school in any sport,” he added. “We can’t worry about the outside noise surrounding the game, but just do what has made us successful.”