With two losses to Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division rival Berkshire, the Kirtland Hornets had no margin for error if they hoped to win a third straight league title.
Following their loss to Berkshire on Feb. 13, the Hornets found themselves in a must win situation and responded in kind. Kirtland won four straight games to earn a share of the conference title with the Badgers.
The Hornets knocked off Wickliffe on Sunday, 66-55, to close out the regular season with a 15-7 mark overall and an 8-5 record in league play.
“It’s a testament obviously to our seniors,” said Kirtland coach Nick Gallo. “For them to be a part of this, Sam Skiljan and Matt Grazia specifically since they both saw varsity time as sophomores and for them to see this come to fruition of playing three years and being champs all three years is quite an accomplishment. The season is not over yet, obviously we want to keep playing as long as we can but it was an unbelievable job by our five seniors to be part of this program and to be leaders. We’ll have huge holes to fill.”
Kirtland jumped on Wickliffe early then had to hold off the Blue Devils in the second half. The Hornets led 15-8 after the first quarter and 28-24 at halftime.
“We missed some shots early but I thought we did a really nice job of controlling pace,” Gallo said. “They gave us some full court pressure but we broke it and we were able to get some layups.”
Grazia was particularly effective. He led the Hornets with 20 points.
“Matt Grazia was awesome tonight,” Gallo said. “With our pick and roll offense he was finding guys, finding our bigs running the rim. He was excellent tonight.”
The senior was confident he could pick apart the Blue Devils’ defense and when his shot wasn’t open he was aggressive in dishing the ball off to his teammates. His production aside, Grazia was satisfied just helping his team win another title.
“I knew I could get to the hoop on them and once that got going everything started to open up and I was able to hit my teammates for a few easy baskets,” Grazia said. “It feels great to be able to win another title. It's just a testament to our hard work as a family and team and it was great to be able to rebound from two losses to Berkshire and still be able to win a share of the title.”
Sunday’s win was a total team effort.
Evan Madden, who added 13 points, and Skiljan both were in early foul trouble, which meant Kirtland’s depth was tested early, especially against Wickliffe’s top player, Trevor Tucker.
“We weathered a storm,” Gallo said. “Evan Madden and Sam Skiljan both picked up two fouls. Our whole bench came in and gave us good minutes. Owen Lewis, Cole DiFabio, those guys came in and really kind of contained Trevor Tucker the entire first half. I tip my hat to them. I thought they were awesome tonight.”
The Hornets excelled in the second half, especially at the free throw line. They hit on just 3-of-10 free throws in the first half but ended the game 18-of-28.
“We took care of business from the free throw line,” Gallo said. “To make 15 of your last 18 free throws, we stepped up to the free throw line when it counted and we needed it the most.”
Kirtland opens the postseason at Columbia on Tuesday.