LINESVILLE — Conneaut School District has a rule when it comes to postseason qualification in athletics. Finish at .500 or above and earn the right to compete. Finish below .500 and opt out of postseason competition.
Of course, that rule comes with some provisions. And while the Conneaut boys basketball team finished the regular season well below .500 at 8-14, it did finish in the top half of fellow Class 4A teams within its region. That so happens to be one of the provisions. So the Eagles were given a second chance.
Conneaut was determined to prove it was worthy of such an opportunity on Friday in the opening round of the District 10 Class 4A playoffs. Mission accomplished.
Conneaut advanced to the quarterfinals with a thrilling 54-50 win over Oil City inside the Eagles Nest. Conneaut is now 9-14 on the year and moves on to face Region 6 second seed Warren on Thursday at a site and time to be determined.
“We didn’t really talk about it directly,” Conneaut coach Derek Thomas said. “But it’s the point, we went and fought to get into the playoffs, now we need to prove to them why they let us in. We deserve to be here and we proved we deserve to be here right now.”
Of course, it didn’t come without some trials and tribulations.
Conneaut took control of the contest early thanks to an outstanding first half by junior Mason Kroniser. Kroniser and Tanner Niemann led the Eagles with 10 points each at the half, a half Conneaut led 26-13.
That lead grew to as many as 17 in the third quarter. But like so many times before this season, that lead was not nearly enough.
In the second half, the Oilers switched it up on defense, going to a 2-2-1 press.
“Normally, that doesn’t hurt us,” Thomas said. “We just didn’t stay aggressive on the back end of it and get layups and attack the hoop like we normally do. We started settling for jump shots. Then we have people playing passive and relying on our seniors to be leaders.
“We made a couple extra passes and turned down a wide open layup.”
That became a big deal in the fourth quarter.
Oil City cut the deficit to seven (38-31) with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Robbie VanWormer to end the third quarter. That lead dwindled to two (38-36) with 6:07 to play in the fourth quarter and was down to one (44-43) after a basket by Alec Klapec with 1:45 to go. Klapec’s hoop was set up by a turnover when a Conneaut player opted not to take the layup and dish it off. The pass was off the mark and the Oilers cleaned it up.
That’s when Kroniser, who had been relatively quiet in the second half, came alive once again. He made a well-contested layup to make it 46-43 and then came up with a big board at the opposite end, which eventually ended with Eli Boyce at the free throw line. Boyce made both to put the Eagles up by five.
Oil City did get a big turnover when Holden Stahl picked off the in-bounds pass right under the hoop and laid it in to cut the lead to one (50-49). But the Eagles did enough in the end to preserve the win.
“It feels great,” Thomas said. “It’s good to see that for the players right there. Ever since I’ve came here and started coaching three years ago, that’s been the goal: get here and get a playoff game and get a win. That’s a big program thing here for us.”
“It’s huge,” added Kroniser. “We grinded in the gym every day so we could be here. It’s big to win this game. We got in the gym and worked hard and didn’t give up on our dreams.”
Kroniser finished with a team-best 20 points to go along with eight rebounds. Niemann had 18 points. Cole Askey, who had two big back-to-back treys early in the fourth quarter, finished with 13 points and five boards.
Stahl led the Oilers (9-14) with 21 points. Klapec had 10 points and 12 rebounds.