SHELBY — They met once during the regular season, but the stakes will be considerably higher when Shelby and Norwalk run it back at Arrow Arena.
The winner will hoist the district championship trophy and qualify for next week’s Sweet 16.
The top-seeded Whippets (19-3) and No. 3 Truckers (17-8) will square off at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Division II Ashland district final. Shelby coasted into the title game with a resounding 75-49 win over Huron in the semifinals. Norwalk had a much tougher go of it, finally dispatching Ontario 66-62 in overtime.
Shelby throttled Norwalk 59-42 in late-January in Norwalk. The Truckers are 8-1 since then.
The Whippets are just as hot, going 9-1 in their last 10 games.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Shelby coach Nathon Loney said. “I keep telling our kids every game is the biggest game of their careers now.”
The Whippets imposed their will from the jump against Huron. Shelby led 28-10 after one quarter, thanks largely to T.J. Pugh. The senior swingman scored 16 of his 26 points in the opening eight minutes. Fellow senior Cody Lantz had seven of his 19 in the first period.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Lantz said. “After that loss to River Valley (during the final week of the regular season) we all kind of picked up and we’re playing our best basketball since.
“It was a wake-up call. It really lit a fire underneath us because we were cruising at that point.”
The Whippets will have to be at their best Saturday night. Norwalk is led by senior co-captains Will Gehlhausen and Garrett Chapin, who combined for almost 30 points a game during the regular season.
A 6-foot guard, Gehlhausen averaged a team-high 14.9 points, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals a game. He scored seven of his 13 points in overtime against Ontario on Wednesday.
Chapin scored 16 points against the Warriors. The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 14.6 points and 9.9 rebounds a game during the regular season. Chapin has made 102 career starts, more than any player in program history. He has scored more than 1,000 career points and grabbed more than 800 rebounds.
Junior Ian Minor, a 6-foot-4 forward, scored 17 against Ontario, while junior guard Kyler Kromer added 11.
“I thought Minor and Kromer were just unbelievable,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “Those two stepped up big time.”
Shelby and Norwalk met in the district semifinals last year at Madison. The Truckers held on for a 62-58 win.
A former coach at Lexington, Gray is just happy to still be playing.
“Tonight was a great win for us,” Gray said Wednesday. “I can’t wait to get back to practice tomorrow.”