SALEM-It was a renaissance season in many ways for the Lisbon boys basketball team.
The Blue Devils talented core of four sophomores Austin Rutecki, Josh Liberati, Josh Craig and Avery Andric took a step forward in their second year as starters, blending with senior Matt Spencer to set numerous school records and more than double last seasons win total. Things culminated Friday night when the young squad became the first Lisbon team in 44 years to take the floor in a district final.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, that's where the magic ran out.
Behind a balanced offense and attacking defense, fourth-seeded Canton Central Catholic took control early and never looked back, defeating third-seeded Lisbon 60-44 to claim the Salem Div. III district championship at Cabas Gymnasium.
"This season has been like none other I've had," Spencer said. "The young guys I got to play with the last two years were great. They all have such bright futures. Tonight was an important step for them."
Canton Central Catholic improves to 14-10 while Lisbon finishes 21-5. It is the first district championship in school history for the Crusaders. They will face Cleveland Villa-Angela St. Joseph in the regional semifinals Wednesday at Canton Fieldhouse.
"I told the kids before the game that this was their time," Canton Central coach Matt Creamer said. "There have been a lot of good teams here that haven't won a district title. I told them this was their night and to go out and take it."
And take it the Crusaders did. Canton Central came right out in an aggressive press defense and forced nine Lisbon turnovers in the first five minutes to seize control. Senior Spencer Rowlands led the way early, scoring all 10 of his points during the first quarter. His three-pointer midway through the frame opened the lead to 16-2, capping a 12-0 run. Lisbon shot just 2-for-11 in that opening spurt.
"We were in too much of a hurry early on offense, the tempo was going faster than we wanted," Lisbon coach Chris Huckshold said. "Once we got the ball across halfcourt we forced some shots. They were aggressive and closing out hard on defense and it would have been a great time to go hard at the basket."
Junior point guard Christian Creamer also had a solid effort for the Crusaders, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. When he stole the ball early in the second quarter and found Justin Lyde with a nice fastbreak pass, the Crusader lead swelled to 27-7. Six players scored at least six points for the Crusaders.
"We haven't seen anything like their quickness and athleticism this year," Spencer said. "They did everything better than us tonight. They rightfully deserve to be where they are."
Though down 37-17 at halftime, the Blue Devils outscored the Crusaders by four points in the second half and forced nine turnovers in the fourth quarter. Josh Liberati led Lisbon with 14 points-10 in the second half-and five assists. Austin Rutecki had seven points and 10 rebounds, while Spencer closed his career with seven points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with 4:49 left in the game.
"I give a lot of credit to Matt," Huckshold said. "He was very frustrated and we were down by a lot, but he didn't hang his head on the bench. He kept cheering the guys on the floor and making sure they were playing hard."
Spencer relished his role as senior leader this season and viewed Friday's game as an important stage in the team's development.
"I was very impressed by the teamwork and love these young guys had," Spencer said. "The only team that can beat them going forward is themselves.
"There is a lot of work to be done, but I am very confident we can get back to this stage," Huckshold said. "I told the guys in the locker room, the offseason starts tomorrow."
Lisbon was gunning for its first district title since 1953. It was the Blue Devils first district final appearance since 1970.
The Blue Devils set single season records in wins and total points. Josh Liberati also broke the single-season assist record and Avery Andric broke the single-season three-point record.
Canton Central Catholic played seven division I schools and six Division II schools during the regular season. Five teams on the Crusaders schedule (Uniontown Lake, Alliance, St. Thomas Aquinas, Youngstown Ursuline and Youngstown Mooney) were playing for district titles this weekend.
"With being an independent we have to schedule a variety of schools and obviously those bigger schools are on a different level then some of the teams we've faced in the tournament," Creamer said.
CANTON CENTRAL: 20-17-10-13-60
CANTON CENTRAL SCORING: Christian Creamer 4-4-12, Josh Schott 3-3-10, Justin Lyde 3-0-6, Jerry Leatherman 3-3-9, Spencer Rowlands 3-2-10, Luke Stuffel 4-1-9, Mark Mokros 1-0-2, Patrick Murphy 0-0-0, Petey Williams 0-0-0, John Paulowski 1-0-2. TEAM TOTALS: 22-45, 13-17: 60.
LISBON SCORING: Matt Spencer 3-0-6, Josh Liberati 4-5-14, Austin Rutecki 3-1-7, Josh Craig 2-0-5, Avery Andric 4-1-10, Austin Davis 0-0-0, Trevor Reese 1-0-2, Colin Sweeney 0-0-0, Jake Liberati 0-0-0, Jason Thompson 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 17-44, 7-14: 44.
Three-point goals: Canton Central 3-10 (Rowlands 2, Schott), Lisbon 3-17 (Liberati, Craig, Andric).