Fort Frye, Magnolia battle in 3A

Something has to give.

For the first time in the 5-year existence of the Wheeling Hospital/OVAC Boys’ Basketball Championships, a pair of defending champions will collide when the Class 3-A contest tips off Saturday afternoon inside Ohio University Eastern’s Health and Physical Education Building at 3 p.m.

Fort Frye, which won the 2-A title last year before moving up to 3-A this season after the OVAC realigned to five divisions, is paired with Magnolia, which claimed the 3-A crown a season ago.

“That’s something that is pretty rare in this conference,” allowed veteran Fort Frye head coach Dan Liedtke. “But that’s because of the change in division alignments.”

Liedtke’s Cadets (15-3) nipped Monroe Central in a thrill-packed title tilt a year ago, while the Blue Eagles (17-2) were downing St. Clairsville for their title.

In Tuesday’s semifinals, No. 2 seeded Fort Frye dispatched fellow Pioneer Valley Conference member Shenandoah by a 64-58 count, while top-seeded Magnolia routed Barnesville, 84-47.

Both head coaches feel their respective teams are playing their best basketball right now. Fort Frye has won eight games in a row, while Magnolia is riding a 5-game win skein and has won 11 of its last 12 outings.

The Cadets’ three losses have come against Shenandoah, Warren Local and Waterford, while the Blue Eagles have dropped contests to Dayton Chaminade-Julienne and St. Marys Ryken, of Maryland.

“We’re tickled to death to be back and defend our title,” veteran Magnolia head coach Dave Tallman said.

“We’re playing really well right now. We started the season with a lot of injuries, but we feel we’re peaking at the right time.”

Magnolia is led by junior Mark Winters who averages nearly 24 points a game and 11 rebounds.

The 6-6 forward has already been offered a full ride to Saginaw Valley State in Michigan.

He netted 21 points in the rout of the Shamrocks.

“He’s our leader and to put up those kind of numbers with the tough schedule that we play, that’s impressive,” Tallman revealed.

The Blue Eagles’ point guard is 5-9 senior Jayson Keller, who only scores at a 5.5 clip, but does so many other things that don’t show up in the boxscores, according to his head coach.

“If anyone saw Jayson on this floor in last year’s finals, he was like Houdini breaking the double teams,” Tallman recalled. “He had a wonderful game and is a really good player for us.”

Rounding out the starting five for the Big Blue are Stephen Rogalski (5-11, Jr.), Nick Blatt (6-5, Sr.) and Zach Willhoite (6-6, Soph.).

“Stephen was one of those players that was injured early on, but he has come on strong for us,” Tallman said. “He’s a great athlete who was first-team all-state in football.

“Nick has been playing for a couple of years now,” Tallman added. “He’s a really good defensive player.

“Zach is a banger inside for us, but we’re trying to get him to run the floor harder,” his coach continued.

When Tallman goes to his bench, he calls on Hunter Campbell (6-4, Sr.) first.

“Hunter is probably the best offensive rebounder in the (Ohio) Valley,” Tallman allowed. “We’re working with him on the defensive end, though.”

Liedtke admitted he hasn’t seen Magnolia firsthand.

“I’ve got a lot of homework to do between now and Saturday afternoon,” he explained during Wednesday’s annual press conference at OUE.

“We’re playing really well right now,” he said. “We had a couple of bad games early-on that we didn’t think we should’ve lost.”

Only one starter is back from last year’s championship squad, that being junior Shon Smith, who took the last shot that was tipped in against the Seminoles.

“We graduated six seniors,” Liedtke noted.

“Of the guys coming back, besides Shon, the others saw some playing time, but not much, but they have worked really hard all summer. They are an exceptional bunch.

“I don’t know if we’ve lost anything from last season because these guys have improved so much.”

Smith is the team leader with a nearly 20-point a game norm.

“He’s that playmaker that seems to step up and get things going for us,” his coach said. “He can take over the game when he wants to.”

Senior Zach Eddy, who nets 15 points per outing, is one of four upperclassmen on the squad.

“He is the tallest player on our team,” Liedtke said, “but he has also made the most three’s on our team.” Eddy has nearly 60 bonus goals, with Smith a close second.

The Cadets have meshed close to 175 three-pointers.

“We’ll have to defend against that,” Tallman said of the Cadets’ prowess from beyond the three-point arc.

One thing is guaranteed, a two-time kingpin will be crowned when this game is all said and done.