PDT Sports Writer
Memories of Ironton’s last trip into the state boys basketball tournament were clear to Zac Carter after he helped punch the Fighting Tigers’ latest ticket into Columbus.
It was 2005, Ironton found itself in the Division III Championship game against Cincinnati North College Hill. The Trojans were headlined with future NBA players O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker.
The Fighting Tigers countered with Cliffton Howard, Dennis Gagai and Brigham Waginger. The previous day, Ironton defeated Archbold to maintain its undefeated record while North College Hill advanced with a win over Loudonville.
Carter attended the game as a 10-year-old, one of 14,749 people to watch a contest that had four ties and as many lead changes. The Fighting Tigers lost 71-65, their only setback of the season.
“We had that game won honestly but they pulled it through,” Carter said.
Fast forward eight years, Mayo is with the Dallas Mavericks and Walker was with the New York Knicks last season. Meanwhile, the 10-year-old watching in the stands has grown up to be a 5-10 senior and is about to lead his school into the third state trip in program history. Ottawa-Glandorf stands in the way between Ironton and one step closer to the school’s first-ever state title.
“We were hoping that we could one day make that one trip to Columbus and win a state championship or at least compete for one,” Carter said.
His coach, Mark LaFon, knows the team’s fate centers on Carter’s performance.
“When he does his job of running the offense and he gets going, he’s hard to stop,” LaFon said.
Last Saturday’s 66-49 win over Oak Hill in the Division III Regional Championships was a weight off his team’s shoulders after three-straight seasons of falling steps shy of the state. At the same time, Carter isn’t satisfied with a Final Four berth.
“We had some unfinished business to do and we got the business done today,” Carter said. “We got that monkey off our shoulders so we can go to Columbus and win this thing.”
LaFon said this season featured great expectations with a final destination set for Ohio State’s Jerome Schottenstein Center.
“I got everybody together and I flat told them, here it is, you are going to win the region,” LaFon said. “If you don’t, we failed, period. I’m not saying you’re failures but we failed.”
The Fighting Tigers, along with Versailles and Leavittsburg LaBrae, are looking for their first state championship. The Titans, Ironton’s Thursday morning semifinal opponent, has 2004 and 2008 state championships.
While all eyes will be on Carter, who was named an Associated Press First Team Division III All-Ohioan earlier this week, LaFon feels his team isn’t a one-trick pony. He is joined on the headline billing by Third Team selection Trey Fletcher and Trevor White, an Honorable Mention pick.
“This group of seniors, what battlers they are,” LaFon said. “They let me challenge them and I challenge them. They let me do it and they’re a great group of kids.”
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or email@example.com.