COLUMBUS - Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph provides one of the bigger challenges Fairland High School's boys basketball team has faced, but not the only huge test.
Fairland (25-1) takes on the Vikings (21-6) at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Ohio Division III state tournament semifinals at Ohio State University's Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The winner advances to Saturday's 5:15 p.m. state championship game against St. Bernard Roger Bacon (24-4) or Archbold (22-5).
The Fairland Dragons are making their first appearance in the state Final Four since 1961.
VASJ has been there 15 times, including the last five. The Vikings own six state championships.
"We look at the history of their school and obviously, this is a huge challenge for us," Dragons coach Nathan Speed said. "Our kids love challenges. I think our kids will be OK as far as nerves are concerned."
Fairland's schedule helped prepare it for state tournament-caliber competition. The Dragons' only loss was to Division I power Hilliard Bradley, 64-42. Division I is Ohio's largest classification. Division III is the second-smallest and most of its teams, including Fairland, would be Class A in West Virginia.
Fairland defeated strong Division II teams Dayton Chaminade-Julienne, 65-58, and Athens, 81-77 in overtime. Chaminade-Julienne beat Roger Bacon 57-48 on Jan. 27. The Dragons also defeated Huntington Prep Blue, 89-75, and West Virginia Class AAA state champion Huntington High 71-65.
Speed said VASJ reminds him somewhat of Huntington High.
"They do in their style of play," he said. "They like to get up and down the floor. They're athletic and aggressive. They like to attack the rim. They have good shooters, guys who can knock down the three. They can extend their defense as far as they want. Some of those things are similar."
As do the Highlanders, the Vikings feature multiple weapons. Gene Higgins, a 5-foot-8 guard, leads VASJ in scoring at 15.7 points per game.
Alonzo Gaffney, a 6-8 sophomore, averages 13.2 points and is drawing recruiting attention from major colleges. Danny McGarry, a 6-4 senior; Noah Newlon, a 6-2 senior; and Andre George, a 5-10 senior, round out the starting lineup.
"They all concern us," Speed said.
"The way they run the floor, the pressure, we're going to have to really concentrate on not turning the ball over and value every possession we get. We're going to have to rebound the basketball. Really, it's the fundamental things we have to do to be in the game."
Fairland's players said they were driven by last season's 73-62 loss to Lynchburg-Clay in the district finals. The Dragons led by 11 points in the second half of that game and lost. The Mustangs went on to the state tournament, where they lost 81-64 to VASJ, which fell to Lima Central Catholic 66-44 in the finals.
The Dragons have no seniors. All five starters are juniors. Isaiah Howell, a 6-2 guard, averages 15.2 points and is the Southeast District co-player of the year. Luke Thomas, a 6-foot guard, averages 15.5 points and scored a game-high 24 in Fairland's 61-47 victory over Berlin Hiland in the Region 11 championship game.
Gunner Short, a 6-3 junior guard, scores 15.8 points. Kollin Van Horn, a 6-8 center, averages 11.8 points. Ty Staten, a 6-foot guard, averages 8 points per game. Keedrick Cunningham, a 6-2 junior guard, comes off the bench and averages 9.8 points.
"Offensively, one of our strengths is was have a lot of guys with the ability to score, whether off the dribble or off a shot," Speed said. "Offensively, we can be hard to guard. We like to get up and down the floor. We've done a good job out-rebounding our opponents, attacking the glass.
"In the tournament, we've gotten a lot better defensively in the half-court game. Kollin has helped that."