Despite graduation losses, Dragons keep on winning
ROME TOWNSHIP, Ohio — This was the season every team on Fairland High School’s boys basketball schedule awaited.
Gone were the players who made the Dragons a state power the last three seasons. Fairland won three consecutive Ohio Valley Conference titles, going 42-0 in the league and 65-9 overall the last three years. The Dragons hadn’t lost a home game since falling to Trotwood-Madison 79-62 on Dec. 12, 2015.
Three district titles, a regional championship and a state tournament Final Four berth were the spoils of a squad that dominated the Tri-State and southeastern Ohio since 2015-16.
Last year’s squad sent all five starters to college programs, including Keedrick Cunningham (West Virginia State University), Isaiah Howell (Kentucky Christian University), Ty Staten (Ohio Northern University), Luke Thomas (Marshall University) and Kollin Van Horn (Cedarville University). Cunningham signed to play football, the other four for basketball. Gunner Short, who played three seasons with the Dragons before finishing last year at Boyd County High School, now plays at the University of Rio Grande.
This season, though, appeared to be different. Six seniors returned, but their playing time had been limited. The Dragons looked ripe for a downfall. Then they started the season 5-1.
Some wondered if Fairland would win five games all season in a strong Ohio Valley Conference where Gallia Academy was a heavy favorite, Ironton returned nearly everyone and Chesapeake, Coal Grove, Portsmouth and South Point figured to be strong. Even Rock Hill looked to be vastly improved.
The Dragons’ quick start can be attributed to a patient offense that scored 56.1 points per game and moves the ball efficiently and a solid defense that allows just 43.5 points per contest despite not featuring a player taller than 6-foot-2. Fairland also has won despite the absence of senior guard and expected starter Joel Lambiotte, who is recovering from a fractured foot suffered during the football playoffs.
“They don’t care who the leading scorer is,” Fairland coach Nathan Speed said. “They don’t care who is scoring. They’re so unselfish moving the ball and they hold one another accountable on defense.”
Fairland defeated South Webster 51-38, lost to unbeaten Eastern-Pike 54-52 in overtime on a neutral floor, beat Huntington Prep Regional 65-41, topped Ironton 58-51, rallied past Coal Grove 51-46 and defeated Huntington High 60-31. This isn’t the high-flying dunking, record-setting 3-point-shooting squads of years past, but the Dragons have been impressive in the early going using an offense that relies on passing, sharp cuts to the basket and open
Speed said the offense and defense differ from what Fair-land did with the exceptionally talented teams of the recent past.
“We tried to find something that fit their personalities,” Speed said. “These guys are hard workers. Their very disciplined on and off the court. What we’re running reflects that.”
Speed said it is rewarding to see players who have seen relatively sparse playing time stepping up.
“These seniors have waited a long time to play,” Speed said. “It carries over. Last year’s team taught these guys and our seniors are teaching the younger players. That unselfishness gets passed on from the varsity to the junior varsity to the junior high teams. They teach those kids what is is to be a team.”
Senior Matt Mondlak leads Fairland with a 13.8 points-per-game average and also averages 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Senior Ian Chinn scores 11 points per contest. Sophomore Clayton Thomas and freshman Aiden Porter each average 10.3 per game. Senior Austin Gartin checks in at 7.3 points and a team-best 5.8 rebounds.
Fairland hasn’t been tested in on the road in the OVC. Teams no doubt will gun for the defending champions. So will non-league squads. The Dragons, who compete in Division III, play much larger Division I teams Dublin Jerome and Dublin Coffman on Dec. 29 and 30 respectively.
The Dragons could have eased their schedule, but opted for games with the Dublin schools and West Virginia Class AAA power Huntington High.
“We didn’t want to lower expectations for who we are and what we do,” Speed said. “Playing good teams is how you get better.”