SALEM - One game is all that seperates the Salem Quakers from their first district championship since 2006, but the next step will be one of the toughest of the season.
Opposing Salem in the district final Saturday night will be sixth-seeded Cardinal Mooney, fresh off a 51-33 win over top-seeded Poland in Monday's semifinal.
The Quakers - who eked out a two-point win over Ravenna Southeast in their semifinal matchup - know they will need to be at their best to take the championship.
"The whole team is pretty focused right now," Salem coach Rich Hart said. "They know the job is not done yet. We worked hard today on improving the things we need to and getting ready for what Mooney will throw at us on Saturday."
Mooney enters the game with a pedestrain 11-11 record, but played a schedule loaded with Div. I teams. After losing six of their last eight regular season games, the Cardinals have stepped up their game in the tournament; throttling suspension-depleted West Branch by 40 points before smothering Poland.
They are led by first-year coach Brian Danilov who won the 1993 Div. III State Championship as the coach for Campbell Memorial, and also led the school to six straight district finals.
"We think our conference prepared us well for the tournament, but Mooney's schedule was even tougher than ours," Hart said. They are a very talented, battle-tested group and their regular season record doesn't indicate how good they are. I'm sure they'll have plenty up their sleeve for us."
Chief among the Quakers' concerns is the aggressive athletic defense that the Cardinals employed in shutting down Poland.
"If we want to win, we have to execute better in the half-court than we have so far in the tournament," senior point guard Brendan Webb said. "We saw what they did to Poland. They are intense and in your face on defense the entire game. We need to focus on taking care of the ball and finishing out possessions."
On offense, the Cardinals are led by 6-foot-8 senior Doug Caputo, who is first on the team with 16 points per game. He is complimented by forward Mark Handel who missed a chunk of the season due to surgery on his knuckle but still averaged 15 per contest and was a key factor in the win over Poland. In the backcourt, guard Joey Kleeh also averaged in double figures for the Cardinals.
"They are really strong and quick and have a lot of guys who can explode to the rim," Hart said. "Obviously Caputo also has a lot of our attention. Not only is he 6-8, but he is also left-handed which will be tough defensively for us because all we've faced have been right-handers."
Although the Quakers (19-6) have improved by ten wins on last year's total, they badly want one more to complete the goal they set before the season.
"We said at the start of fall practice that we wanted to win the district," Hart said. "We were disappointed not to win the league, but this has been our main goal all along."
"The team has been waiting for this game the entire season," Webb said "By Saturday night we'll be ready to go."