Rockets, Devils face tall tasks

There’s no unrealistic expectations, no perceived lack of respect for the Maplewood Rockets heading into the Division IV Orwell district final game at 7 p.m. against top-seeded Cornerstone Christian tonight.

They’re the underdogs, and they know it.

According to Maplewood coach Nathan Kish, this suits the Rockets just fine.

“We want to beat anybody who comes our way no matter what the seed,” Kish said. “I don’t know if the seed motivates us as much as the fact that we’re in the district finals and we have a chance to do something only (three) Maplewood teams have ever done before. I think that motivates us more than anything.”

It will be a tough task for Maplewood (20-4) to overcome Cornerstone Christian (19-4). The Patriots have outscored opponents by just less than 23 points per game and had four players make the Northeast Ohio Lakes District first and second teams, including the district player of the year, Brian Gee, and his 18.8 points per game.

The other first-team member is 5-11 senior R.J. Spaller, who averages 14.7 points per game, while the two second-team all-district honorees – Tyrez Shepard and Isaiah McQueen – combine for 18.2 points per game.

“They’re a pretty complete team,” Kish said. “They got two guards going to play college basketball and some shooters that can knock it down. So, they’re a very complete team, and from watching them (Tuesday), they’re a very well-coached team.”

The other Trumbull County team in a Division IV district final, McDonald, also finds itself as an underdog tonight.

The Blue Devils (21-3) square off with the St. Thomas Aquinas Knights (14-11) at the Struthers Fieldhouse, and although McDonald has a better record and is the higher seed, the Knights are on a roll in the tournament, winning all three games by an average of 51 points and routing first-seed Wellsville in the district semifinal game by 27 points.

“Obviously, Aquinas has played a high-level schedule,” Rasile said. “Some of the better teams in northeast Ohio – you know, Villa Angela (-St. Joseph) and Cleveland Central Catholic and those types of teams. So, I would consider us an underdog going into the game.”

Rasile, who witnessed the beatdown Aquinas laid down on Wellsville, said the Knights showed all the characteristics of his vintage McDonald squads.

“When I was watching that game the other night, a couple of people approached me and said, ‘Boy, I would have really liked to see this Aquinas team versus some of my McDonald teams previous years when we used to really get after it,’ ” Rasile said. “They said it would have been an intense game.

“They get after it, and I love the way they play the game of basketball.”

While Blue Devils don’t display the same style of play this season, they do have a big size advantage. Aquinas has just one player over 6 feet, while McDonald has three over that height – 6-3 Matt Seitz, 6-4 Kenny Greaver and 6-3 Brad Woodley.

“We have some advantages from a physical standpoint,” Rasile said. “They have one guy who’s over 6-foot tall. He’s really more of a finesse guy – he’s their 3-point shooter. We have to take advantage of that, though, by getting the ball up the court and getting it to our centers.”

To go along with the height advantage, the Blue Devils have a lot of big-game experience, as the program has participated in 10 district finals under Rasile. That includes the loss to Windham last season in a district final.

“The kids are used to this – whether it be as players or as fans,” Rasile said. “They’ve come through the system, they’ve seen these games. Last year, they were in the district championship against Windham over in Warren. So, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for us.”

The Rockets, meanwhile, don’t have any experience in such games, as the last time the program made it to a district final (2010), all these players were in middle school. They’re only the 10th team in school history to make it to this stage, which Maplewood holds a 3-6 mark in the previous nine trips.

Still, Kish said he’s trying to downplay the pressure.

“I told them, ‘We are the underdogs. People don’t expect us to win, so we have nothing to lose,’ ” he said. ” ‘Go out, play your heart out and whatever happens, happens.’ “