It was all but unanimous when the season started. Norton was the odds-on-favorite to repeat as the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division champion. The Panthers had almost everyone back, they have the best size in the division, they have a core of 3-point shooters and talented guards that can take care of the ball.
Guys like me were even bold enough to predict the Panthers would distance themselves from the rest of the league and win their third title in four years with plenty of room to spare.
So, here we are, only two games remaining on the division slate and the Streetsboro Rockets have something to say about which team will get the trophy this year.
The two teams will meet on Friday in Norton with the division championship on the line.
Streetsboro is the only blemish on Norton's division record, a 51-49 Rockets win back on Jan. 8. The Rockets lost back-to-back division games to Kent Roosevelt and Coventry in December and have not lost a division game since.
A Panthers victory, before what is expected to be a sellout crowd, would clinch the title regardless of what Norton does in its final game. A Rockets win would lock the two teams in first place with 11-2 records with one game remaining. Norton travels to Kent for its final game, while Streetsboro will host Crestwood in its finale.
Streetsboro won three County Division titles in 2010-11, 2008-09 and 2007-08. The Rockets finished in third place last season in the Metro Division and will return to the County Division next season.
NORTON'S KEYS TO VICTORY
The Panthers (17-3 overall) have a talented group of athletes that take the floor each night. They are led by 6-foot-7 Tyler Sherman, who is probably the leading candidate to be honored as the division's Player of the Year this season. Sherman and teammate Aaron VanBuskirk (6-6) were both First Team All-Metro Division last year, however, it appears VanBuskirk will not be in the lineup Friday.
What makes the Panthers so tough is the fact they have six guys that will average between eight and 15 points every night. Sherman has just recently topped the 1,000-point mark and has over 700 rebounds in his career. He averages a double-double (13 ppg, 11 rpg) and has been a part of the Panthers' title runs since his freshman year.
The Norton boxscore usually features at least eight guys -- and many times the leading scorer changes game by game.
"We have to become a little more physical against Streetsboro," said Norton head coach Rod Swartz.
"We did not play our best against them in that first game and we have been struggling a bit lately, but we did play pretty well Tuesday night against Akron North.
"We are looking forward to the game; the kids are excited about it," added the Panthers' coach.
STREETSBORO'S KEYS TO VICTORY
Needless to say, Rockets head coach Nick Marcini was not a happy man Tuesday night following his team's double-digit loss to Poland Seminary.
Even though the Bulldogs are a good team and a No. 1 seed in the upcoming sectional tournament, Marcini does not like the way his team has been playing of late.
"Playing a tough schedule just doesn't do you any good when you don't compete," said Marcini after Tuesday's 75-52 setback.
"We can't win Friday if we continue to play like that. Norton is huge, and we have to be able to control the paint and limit their touches inside, while boxing out and controlling the boards," said Marcini.
In the first meeting of these two teams, Streetsboro had four starters in double figures as Jordan Matusik hit five 3s in leading the Rockets. Matusik tossed in three 3s Tuesday to become the single-season record-holder with 59.
The Rockets' victory the first time around also saw VanBuskirk score 22 of the Panthers' 49 points in the loss.
"Despite the way we have played in our last two losses, I told the guys that they have done something that no one thought we could do," Marcini said. "Everyone handed the title to Norton early in the season, me included. They (Norton) have all the pressure on them, and we just have to go out and perform."
I believe Norton is a level above Streetsboro this season, and I am really looking forward to this contest.
Both coaches know what their team has to do for a victory. I believe the key for the Rockets will be if their key players can play a pressurized, physical style of defense without getting into foul trouble.
PART III ON THE HORIZON?
Last week, the Windham Bombers proved they are the best team in the County Division. The unofficial title game against Mogadore was good and the Wildcats came to play.
The two teams, both Division IV powers that reached the regional semifinal level of the tournament a season ago, could meet again in Canton this year.
My thoughts on if the Bombers and Wildcats meet a third time this season? Who knows, because anything can happen if and when teams play each other for a third time.
Last Sunday, all 16 teams of the PTC attended sectional/district tournament draws at various locations. The statewide brackets are posted at www.ohsaa.org, however, there are a couple districts that have not done so yet.
In the next couple weeks, I will attempt to analyze matchups as the 800 schools open their quest on reaching the Final Four in Columbus.
PTC assignments iinclude:
Alliance District (Division I) -- Kent Roosevelt
Boardman District (Division II) -- Crestwood, Southeast, Ravenna
Canton District (Division II) -- Norton, Springfield, Coventry
Stow District (Division II) -- Woodridge, Field, Streetsboro
Warren District (Division III) -- Garfield
Salem District (Division III) -- Waterloo, Rootstown
Struthers District (Division IV) -- East Canton, Mogadore
Warren District (Division IV) -- Windham