Dave Close knows a thing or two about winning.
He has close to 600 victories during his illustrious career, including more than 500 at his alma mater.
Therefore, the longtime Stow-Munroe Falls head boys basketball coach won’t sugarcoat his feelings when it comes to the dreaded "L" word.
"I told my guys, ‘We’re not looking for moral victories,’" Close said.
Well, you could argue they got one anyway. Of course, as the Bulldogs’ head man will tell you, "moral victories" don’t lead to conference championships.
Regardless, Close does believe his team took some significant steps forward during its heartbreaking 70-69 overtime loss to Suburban League National Conference rival North Royalton Tuesday at James G. Tyree Gymnasium.
Stow also suffered a 66-42 defeat to defending conference champion Brecksville-Broadview Heights Dec. 6 on the road. The Bears and the Bees are the likely favorites to win the National Conference title this winter.
As for Close, his assessment of the situation may seem brutally blunt. That’s because his team dropped to 0-3 overall and 0-2 in the conference.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs, who feature a number of first-year varsity players, seem to be finding their groove after a workmanlike effort against North Royalton.
In other words, slowly but surely.
"We did compete," Close said. "We certainly wanted to win. We’re looking to improve every day and get comfortable with one another. This was the first time the guys looked comfortable together."
They couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable during the early stages of the game, though.
The Bears buried six 3-pointers in the first quarter and led by as many as 14 in the third period.
But the momentum flipped 180 degrees once a certain team found its "comfort zone."
"North Royalton is pretty disruptive defensively," Close said. "The kids did a good job of not panicking. They didn’t force a pass; they didn’t force a shot.
"We were aggressive in transition during the comeback. We rebounded well during the comeback."
Stow actually had a chance to win it on the last possession of the game, but the Bulldogs’ final shot did not find the strings.
"We were doing well in transition so I didn’t call a set," Close said. "I was afraid we’d get too robotic. We’ll learn from that."
Four players reached double figures in scoring for the Bears, who improved to 3-0 overall and 2-0 in the conference. As always, the catalyst for North Royalton was point guard Omar Abuhamdeh, whose ability to relentlessly attack off the dribble allowed the Bears to spread the floor and launch bombs. All told, North Royalton finished with 12 3-pointers.
"We wanted to keep him out of the paint," Close said of Abuhamdeh. "Their whole game plan is to drive into the paint and throw it back to the 3-point line. If you guard the three, they can drive. If you guard the drive, they can hit the three. Trying to take away both is a challenge."
Guard Cale Marconi led Stow with 14 points and teammate Van Shyka scored 13 points. Forward Desmond Copeland and guard Deon Horn added 12 points apiece for the Bulldogs.
"They’re starting to understand what a good shot means for us," Close said. "A good shot for one team may be different for another team. We know where our strengths are."
Against the Bees, the Bulldogs committed six turnovers in the first quarter. As a result, Brecksville took a 19-10 lead.
The game completely went south for Stow in the middle of the third period.
Leading by five, Brecksville, which appeared to be losing momentum, missed a 3-point attempt. However, the Bees got the rebound, kicked it out and buried a triple on their second attempt.
Thanks to this sudden turn of events, Brecksville found its stroke after that and wound up knocking down a few more triples in a matter of minutes.
Just like that, a very interesting game turned into a blowout.
"There was a momentum swing just on that one play," Close said. "They [the Bees] went from feeling iffy to feeling great. We needed that rebound. That allowed the floodgates to open again."
When you’ve been as successful as the Bulldogs have been in the last three-plus decades, a three-game losing streak to start the season can raise quite a few eyebrows.
Fortunately, the season is a cross-country road trip and not a quick stroll down the block. Thus, Close is confident his team can trade those ghastly moral victories for actual victories sooner than later.
"That’s the beauty of athletic experience," Close said. "You experience moments of growth and maturity. We’re heading in the right direction. I’m patiently urgent. When you see kids start to get it and start to take ownership of things, that’s good for the coaching staff. They’re starting to see the light come on."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.