Redemptive Rangers prove progress of one yearJanuary 25, 2014
By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer
FERDINAND — A year ago, it was all quite different for the Forest Park boys basketball team.
The squad hobbled into Cabby O’Neill Gym last January with a 3-9 record, having dropped five straight games. Jeff Litherland patrolled the sidelines for the first time as Forest Park’s sudden interim coach, and Jasper slapped the Rangers with a 23-point loss.
Now, having nestled into the coaching role for a full year, Litherland gazes at the distinction in outcome with delight.
Even when the Rangers fell behind by as many as seven points to Jasper in the third quarter Friday at Buechler Arena, no one panicked. And once they had collared the comeback, assumed the lead early in the fourth quarter and flexed to a 62-58 surge past the Wildcats, it became clear to Litherland that his group has finally begun to understand its capabilities.
“This is the team I’ve seen in the summer,” Litherland said. “I saw them in the summer and I’ve seen it in the (preseason) scrimmage, but I’m trying to get them guys to understand the intensity level and the emotion that you’ve got to play with out there. And tonight, they finally understood it.”
The Rangers (7-5) exuded that verve in abundance when it mattered most. After cutting the Wildcats’ long-held lead to 43-39 entering the final quarter, Forest Park gathered points on 12 of its final 17 possessions. The Ranger defense forced five turnovers in the final eight minutes and allowed Jasper (5-5) just two second-chance opportunities after yielding 10 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats through the first three quarters.
The crowd from both sides was raucous. Students howled. Each basket earned cheers, each blunder elicited jeers. And by the end, no one understand the polarity as much as Ranger guard Joel Weyer.
After bagging just a pair of free throws in the first half, the Jasper students welcomed the Forest Park senior with chants of “Two-point Weyer!” once the second half commenced.
But when his first 3-point field goal splashed down to reduce the Rangers’ hole to 38-37 with two minutes left in the third quarter, something clicked. Again and again and again.
Weyer drained all three of his 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter and canned four free throws in the second half to finish with a game- and season-high 18 points, pacing five Rangers with eight or more points. The senior buried his final 3 on a skip pass from Dakota Begle to give Forest Park a 55-50 advantage with 1:53 remaining, inducing Jasper coach John Goebel to burn his final timeout.
Weyer barreled toward the Ranger huddle shouting, “Yeaaa!” as Forest Park students modified the chant.
“Three-point Weyer!” they shouted in between claps.
While the Ranger guard provided a face to the scoring swell with his 11 fourth-quarter points, “it took everybody,” Litherland stressed. Begle fused 14 points with game-highs of nine rebounds and four assists. Austin Egloff scored eight points, including 6-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter. The senior entered the game connecting on just 27 percent at the stripe.
“That’s really what wins championships is free throws,” said Egloff, whose team converted on 12-of-18 foul shots in the final period. “We stepped up and we’re starting to look like champions preparing for the postseason.”
The Cats committed their seventh foul of the second half with 1:28 left in the third quarter, allowing Weyer to hit the first pair of Forest Park’s 17 bonus free throw attempts. By the end, four Wildcats had fouled out and another survived with four fouls. As Goebel saw it, however, the Cats installed a laudable energy level throughout the contest. The difference came elsewhere.
“The hustle was there, the work ethic was there, the intensity was there, the physicality was there. We had all the ingredients, at least from the emotional standpoint, we just failed to execute in crucial situations,” Goebel said.
The Wildcat coach pointed at his team’s inability to locate Weyer and other Ranger shooters in the late-going, its feebleness in finishing some close-range shots and its troubles with widening the third-quarter lead as prime causes for the defeat. Yet much is rooted in concepts far simpler.
“We’ve said from day one, we’re an inexperienced ball team, and being in a hostile environment, on the road, big crowd, and (when) push comes to shove, we just don’t always have that leadership and that experience from the guys who can step up and take control of the situation,” said Goebel, whose team was led in scoring by freshman T.D. Nottingham with 14 points and Nolan Ahrens with 12. “And that’s the only way to gain experience is to experience things like this tonight and to play through it. And we’ll learn from it, we’ll get better from it. We’re disappointed about it, but it’s not the end of the world.”
For the first time in Litherland’s short tenure, the Rangers have notched three straight wins and could collect a fourth when the Rangers welcome Pocket Athletic Conference foe Tecumseh (7-6, 2-2) to Ferdinand at 8 tonight.
From where they were to where they now stand, the win typified a turnaround, Egloff said. Not only as a team, but something more substantial.
“What it really does is it reflects the program as a whole under Coach Litherland. We were kind of down in the dumps early during the year last season. We weren’t the Rangers,” Egloff said. “Now we’re the Rangers again, bringing it back to the top, bringing our program where it belongs.”
Contact Joe Jasinski
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