Van Wert’s Logan Ray goes up for a rebound in a game earlier this season against Kenton. The Cougars travel to Elida Friday to take on the Bulldogs. (TB file photo)
Van Wert’s Logan Ray goes up for a rebound in a game earlier this season against Kenton. The Cougars travel to Elida Friday to take on the Bulldogs. (TB file photo)

Times Bulletin Correspondent

VAN WERT - Van Wert fans and coaches have to wonder which Cougar team will show up for the big game at Elida Friday night. Will it be the one that beat Kenton 72-57 last Friday (53 percent field goal shooting, only eight turnovers) or the one that lost to Carroll 45-41 this Tuesday (31 percent field goal shooting, 22 turnovers)? Considering this Friday's opponent, it had better be the former.

Elida is 7-3 overall and 2-0 in the Western Buckeye League. Van Wert is 6-3 and 2-0. In almost every way, this appears to be a major test for both teams and an even matchup. The focus will be on the Bulldogs' 6-4 junior, Dakota Mathias, the leading scorer in the area (28 ppg) and one of the best players in Ohio. Mathias has some other impressive numbers - 56 percent field goal shooting, nine rebounds and six assists per game. He's a threat from long range and mid-range, as well as the dribble-drive. Mathias started the season in the Elida Tip-Off Classic with games of 41 and 42 points.

Veteran Cougar coach Dave Froelich has extensive experience dealing with superstars. Think Jon Diebler (Van Wert vs. Upper Sandusky - 2007 regional semifinal) and William Buford (Van Wert vs. Toledo Libbey - 2008 district semifinal).

"They're a tough match up with him and sharpshooter Aric Thompson (6'3 senior, 10 ppg, 4 rpg) and are getting good play from (Ebin) Stratton (6'4 senior, 7 ppg, 6 rpg) and others," said Froelich. "They run a multiple-look offensive scheme, but it always starts and ends with Mathias. We'll work hard to give them different looks and try to limit his effectiveness. We can't expect to stop him, but we have to make it difficult for him and then try to put pressure on others to have to make plays. He's a huge concern, but we can't ignore others, and we can't focus so much on them and not worry about what we do. We need to stay true to our defensive and offensive principles."

Elida has beaten Lima Central Catholic (68-63, double overtime, Tip-Off Classic), Spencerville (62-61), Wapakoneta (59-46), Toledo Woodward (74-50), Coldwater (62-38), Lima Senior (71-68), and St. Mary's (63-44). The losses have come at the hands of Bath (67-65, double overtime, Tip-Off Classic), Delphos St. John's (49-44), and Liberty-Benton (55-50). By way of comparison against two common opponents, Van Wert beat Coldwater (54-40) and Delphos St. John's (56-50).

The Bulldogs score more than the Cougars (62 ppg vs. 51 ppg), but also give up more (54 ppg vs 46 ppg). Mathias, Thompson, and Stratton are the only returning letterwinners from last year's state runnerup team, and all three have had to raise their games another notch to make up for the loss of all-stater Reggie McAdams, now playing for the University of Akron. Several rookies - most prominently 6'2 junior Max Stambaugh and 6'2 sophomore Austin Allemeier - will also determine the success of this year's Bulldogs.

Seniors AJ Smith and Joey Hurless continue to lead the Cougars. Both were sensational against Kenton (28 points for Smith, 18 assists for Hurless), but both struggled mightily against Carroll. Smith is averaging 15.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories. He also has 14 of the team's 18 blocks and is second in steals with 14. Hurless averages 11.9 points and has excellent field goal shooting percentages - 52.7 overall, 39.1 from three-point distance. His most impressive number, however, is 9.3 assists per game (versus 4.9 turnovers). He leads the team in steals with 20. As a team, the Cougars have outshot the opponents 43.6 to 42.0 percent from the field, including 29.3 to 25.8 from long range. The nine rivals, however, have been much better from the foul line - 72.7 to 61.2. Van Wert has won the boards 246 to 223 and has turned the ball over fewer times - 12.6 per game to 15.0.

On Saturday Van Wert will play its third game in five days (fourth in eight days), traveling to Maria Stein to take on Marion Local of the Midwest Athletic Conference. After having its basketball season delayed by a Division VI state football championship, the Flyers are 3-3 overall and 0-1 in the MAC. Marion Local has wins over Covington (49-28), Wapakoneta (52-37), and Shawnee (50-45). They've lost to St. Mary's (34-46), Minster (31-48), and Anna (40-43).

"We have to go on the road again Saturday and play a big and athletic Marion Local team," said Froelich. "They will go 6'9, 6'6, 6'5, 6'5, etc. and will try to play a half court pound-it-at-you game. If we have any energy left, we'll try to pressure their guard play and push tempo and run to make this a full court game. It will be a very difficult test at the end of a tough week of four games in eight days, but kids love to play, and we will do our best to get after it."