NORTH ROBINSON — David Sheldon and his Colonel Crawford Eagles deserved at least 24 hours to celebrate.
After all, winning district championships isn’t easy.
For the second year in a row, Colonel Crawford is north central Ohio’s last team standing. The Eagles (18-7) will meet Dalton (16-8) of the Wayne County Athletic League in the Division IV regional semifinals at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Canton Memorial Fieldhouse. Defending state champ and small-school juggernaut Richmond Heights will play Cornerstone Christian in Tuesday’s late game.
The Eagles punched their ticket to the regional semifinals with a 59-49 win over Lucas in last week’s Willard district championship game.
“There was so much pressure on this team, following one of the most successful teams ever,” said Sheldon, who has piled up more than 300 wins in his 17 seasons in North Robinson. “This team faced so much adversity.”
Colonel Crawford reached the Elite Eight in Division III last year, falling to eventual state runner-up Ottawa-Glandorf in the regional finals at Bowling Green State University. Four of the five starters for the Eagles in that game graduated, including college recruits Mason Studer (Ohio Northern) and Carter Valentine (Ashland).
Losing two college-level players among four starters isn’t traditionally a recipe for success. Colonel Crawford had its remarkable regular-season winning streak snapped at 58 games by Carey early in the year. The Eagles then dropped four of their final seven regular-season games heading into the postseason.
“A lot of people didn’t think we would be in this position, but everyone bought in and played to their roles,” said senior Braxton Baker, the lone returning starter from last year’s record-setting 26-1 outfit. “It’s just awesome to be back in the Sweet 16.”
The third option on last year’s team, Baker has developed into one of the top players in north central Ohio this winter. He averaged a team-high 18.7 points a game. Fellow senior Jacob Maddy averaged 12.8 points and 10.3 rebounds a game.
Baker scored 22 points in the district championship game, while Maddy added 13. Guards Trevor Vogt and Derek Horsley each chipped in 10 points as Colonel Crawford won its sixth district title in Sheldon’s tenure.
“This is the epitome of Colonel Crawford basketball. Each person buys into a role,” Sheldon said. “That’s what it’s all about.
“We had tough love throughout this season and it all paid off. This is why I love team sports. In the game of life, you’re going to deal with adversity and you’ve got to fight through it.”
Dalton tied for first in the rugged WCAL at 12-2, sharing the title with Norwayne and Smithville. Braylon Wenger scored 28 points in last week’s upset win over Warren JFK in the Struthers district final. Brady Hignight added 20.
A win over Dalton would send the Eagles into the regional final for a second straight year, where Richmond Heights will likely be waiting. Richmond Heights was a perfect 22-0 during the regular season, including an 83-80 win at Division I powerhouse Lakewood St. Edward in the regular-season finale. Richmond Heights has won its three tournament games by 84, 37 and 20 points.
Preparation for the regional was the last thing on Sheldon’s mind after last week’s hard-fought win over Lucas.
“I’ve coached 21 years, 17 as a head coach. I’m not going to take this for granted,” Sheldon said as his team cut down the nets inside Willard’s Robert L. Haas Gymnasium. “It’s so, so hard to get here. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and get back to work tomorrow.
“We’re going to enjoy the now right now.”