BOARDMAN - Familiarity will be the name of the game when Salem and West Branch begin postseason play next week at the Division II district tournament at Boardman.
The Quakers take on Niles for the second time this season on Tuesday, and West Branch is set to play a rematch with Southeast on Friday. The local teams came out on top in the last meetings. Salem defeated the Dragons 61-45 on Jan. 17. The Warriors outdid the Pirates 49-44 back on Dec. 6.
"At this point our guys are excited to be playing," Salem coach Rich Hart said. "We've had almost 10 days to prepare for Niles and have been able to work on a lot of the little things and that's been helpful. As far as playing Niles again, I think we have some confidence. It might be different if we had won at home, but we beat them on the road. That gives a little confidence heading into the game, but at the same time, we know if we don't play four quarters things can end up like the losses we should have won."
Salem enters the tournament as the eight seed at 8-12, but six of those games were lost by five points or less. The Quakers' woes began in the second game of the season when they lost to West Branch 65-64 in double overtime. Salem went on to drop 55-52 and 64-61 finals to Marlington and 73-68 and 67-64 decisions to Minerva. The Quakers fell to Carrollton 47-43.
Salem was finally came on on top of a nail-biter by defeating Louisville 69-65 in their regular-season closer on Feb. 17.
"That win was very big," Hart said. "It's like a new season and we're like a new team. We've been very focused and had a great week of practice. We seem to have more confidence in ourselves and in each other. Not only was it a big win, but it was a team win. Everybody made a contribution. We got great senior leadership and hopefully all that will continue into the tournament."
Niles is the 11-team tournament's the bottom seed at 3-17, but like the Quakers carry momentum into the playoffs. Niles closed the regular season with a 70-68 win - the Dragons' first one in conference - over Beaver Local on Tuesday.
Not that Hart was too surprised.
"Niles is athletic and they got good size," he added."They have a small point guard who is very quick and can shoot the ball. The other four guys on the court are in the 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 range. They mirror us really in that a bad quarter here and a bad quarter there has cost them games, but they've been in basically every one this season. I know we have to be ready to play from the start."
While Salem and Niles finished with wins, No. 5 West Branch has been struggling in recent weeks. The Warriors dropped their last four, but have one last chance to snap out of the slump when they travel to South Range tonight.
"One of our goals was to have a winning season and at one point we were 9-6 and then we lost four straight," West Branch coach John Hancock said. "Hopefully we can get a win and get some momentum back."
A win tonight will give the Warriors a .500 mark at 10-10.
Southeast (13-6) also closes the regular season tonight with a trip to Rootstown. A win for the Pirates will give them a share of the Portage Trail Conference championship.
"Having played Southeast once already is to our advantage," Hancock said. "We are familiar with them and that's a good thing. It gives us some confidence and I know our seniors have worked extremely hard and don't want this season to end."
West Branch was comfortable with a rematch.
"The familiarity of playing them earlier in the year is the reason we went into their bracket," Hancock said. "But It's also nice that we get a week off. That's another reason we took the spot. It gives as a week to rest and prepare. The fact that our kids are familiar with them and the way they play is nice too."
Not that Hancock isn't expecting anything but a battle from the sharpshooting Pirates.
"They are a guard-oriented team," he said. "They hit seven 3's against us. They probably hit seven to 10 3-pointers a game. They can put five guys on the floor that can shoot from the perimeter. They want to spread you out and shoot 3's. They play extremely hard. They go to the glass and play with a lot of energy.
"Their best player is probably (Noah) Kainrad. He was the quarterback on their playoff football team. He's just a physical kid. They also have two stepbrothers, Joe and Chris Kinker, who can shoot very, very well. Joe had 16 against us, Chris had 13, and Kainrad had 11."
And at the end of the day, Hart and Hancock know anything is possible in the Boardman District. Salem defeated No. 1 seed Struthers earlier in the season. West Branch beat Salem. Southeast beat No. 7 Crestwood. Struthers split with No. 2 Poland. Niles split with No. 10 Hubbard. No. 9 Mooney and No. 3 Lakeview both defeated Hubbard. Poland edged Lakeview twice. No. 6 Ravenna swept Crestview.
"It's wide open," Hancock said. "Poland is the team to beat right now. They've been playing really well and Cardinal Mooney has a really nice team. It's anybody's. There could definitely be some upsets"
"It's pretty even," he said. "It's going to come down to whoever shoots the ball better will probably win the win."
The tournament begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Mooney and Hubbard. Crestwood and Ravenna follow at 7:30.