At one point, the Cuyahoga Falls boys basketball team looked like a charming underdog story last winter.
The Black Tigers started the 2017-18 season with a very respectable 6-4 record, which included a stunning victory over Wadsworth, a team many considered one of the favorites to win the Suburban League National Conference.
And then, just like that, everything completely fell apart in rather catastrophic fashion.
Falls’ season ended with a rather massive whimper after a loss to Highland in a Division I sectional game.
How rough was it?
The Black Tigers finished the season on a 13-game losing streak. Falls also finished 2-12 in the always competitive National Conference.
So, perhaps, considering its abundance of struggles, the only direction the Black Tigers can go is up, right?
Time will tell.
Falls doesn’t have players who have spent a lot of time in the varsity lineup. However, the Black Tigers seem to like being around each other and are eager to show what they can do.
"The team chemistry is as good as it has been in awhile," said fourth-year coach Kenny Johnson (36-52), a Falls grad who enters his 21st season as a coach in the program. "It’s more enjoyable.
"We had one scrimmage and we did OK. We’re going to struggle a little bit because we don’t have much experience."
The Black Tigers lost two seniors during the spring and another player who graduated recently.
They are guards Paris Blackshear and Dylan Ball and forward Dion Davis, who was Falls’ most effective post player.
Falls has just three players who saw significant minutes last season. They are 6-4 senior guard James Moore, a starter, 6-2 senior forward Noah Koehler and 6-1 senior forward Dai Dai Brazile.
Junior guards Anthony Nichols and Tony Sondles, who were mainstays on the cross country team, also saw some time under the varsity lights.
Johnson welcomes first-year senior guards Joey Canterbury and Allex Miller. Two juniors who hope to make their marks are forward Ethan Tompkins and Joey Sondles, who is Tony’s twin brother.
Three sophomores will be in the rotation as well. They are guards Trinny Henderson, a transfer from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Kyler Tepus and Isaiah Campbell.
Freshman Deon Horn also is on the varsity roster.
And there could be some much-needed help down the road.
Falls’ youth programs seem to be establishing themselves quite well, according to Johnson.
"All of our travel teams are competing in the good divisions," he said. "They’re competing with the (Canton) GlenOaks and the (Massillon) Jacksons. The youth has paid off.
"Our seventh-grade team is pretty decent. We have younger kids on the varsity now."
Derek Widuck returns as Johnson’s varsity assistant. Newcomers to the coaching staff are Brent Hovey, a Falls graduate who will lead the junior varsity squad, and Nick Greenwood, who will guide the freshman team.
If you follow former head coach Chris Mack’s Xavier squads or head coach Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams, you will see a twisted version of a man-to-man defense known as the pack line defense.
This defense features everyone except the player guarding the ball being inside an imaginary line 16 feet from the rim.
That 16-feet imaginary line is known as the pack line. Johnson has bought into such an approach and has implemented the tricky defensive formation this winter.
"We want to keep people in front of us," Johnson said. "It’s about having to get back to the shooter. Teams in our league can really shoot."
The Black Tigers lack a true post player and a long-armed wing who can shoot over defenders in traffic.
Therefore, Falls will rely on its outside shooting and its ability to attack the basket.
"The game has changed because of the 3-pointer," Johnson said. "We want to shoot threes. If you’re open, you have to shoot it.
"A shot on the rim is better than a turnover. We just want to avoid possessions that have one pass and then a three."
Stow-Munroe Falls is the defending two-time National Conference champion. Johnson doesn’t believe his team is ready to challenge for the conference title yet.
However, he does believe multiple teams will be fighting for conference supremacy.
"Stow for sure and North Royalton will be up there," Johnson said. "Brecksville has (Kenny) Ganley and that kid is good. Wadsworth’s JV team was phenomenal. Twinsburg has decent guard play."
Since his squad lacks experience, height and a go-to scorer, Johnson wants his players to appreciate punching in, getting their hands dirty and trusting the process.
"We’ll keep battling and grinding it out," he said. "If we do that, we’ll eventually win games we’re not supposed to win."
The Black Tigers are scheduled to make their 2018-19 debut against Parma Normandy Nov. 29 at Tom Jones Court. They are set to visit Suburban League crossover rival Kent Roosevelt Nov. 30. Both varsity games are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, email@example.com or @FrankAceto_RPC.