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High School

Surprising Start top seed for City League playoffs

Spartans turn balance into success

  • SPT-StartRogers03-17

    Start's Devin Williams is defended by Rogers' Josh Ellis during a City League game earlier this year. Williams and the Spartans are the top seed in the league playoffs, which begin Tuesday.

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  • SPT-StartRogers03-25

    Start's Tyrik Barbine shoots over Rogers' Jordan Hayward during a game at Rogers High School on Feb. 2.

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When describing the path his Start boys basketball team has taken to the City League playoffs, second-year head coach Matthew Wortham went old school with some musical references from 1960s Detroit.

Wortham pointed out how long his top-seeded Spartans (17-3, 9-1 CL) took to earn a little “Respect,” among area teams.

Then when praising the team’s balanced scoring, he chose the legendary Motown group, The Temptations.

“We don’t have any David Ruffins,” Wortham said of The Temptations’ most notable lead singer, “but we’ve got a lot of Otis Williamses.

“Otis wasn’t the best singer, but he was the leader and the most committed member of the group. Always positive, and hungry to be better. That’s my guys.”

The Spartans do in fact have one actual Williams, 5-foot-9 junior guard Devin, who leads the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game. He is not far ahead of the rest of the team’s starting five — 6-2 junior guard Alex Perry (10.2), 5-11 senior guard Tyrik Barbine (9.7), 5-9 junior guard Brandon Lewis (9.3), and 6-6 senior center Trent Harris (6.0).

As for the respect, that has finally arrived along thanks to a 10-game winning streak Start takes into a City League semifinal against No. 4 seed Woodward (2-18, 2-8). The game is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Waite High School.

The victory string includes a 50-49 win Jan. 30 against Three Rivers Athletic Conference power St. Francis de Sales, and a 69-59 triumph Feb. 2 against No. 2 CL seed Rogers.

The Rams (8-11, 8-2) take on No. 3 seed and two-time defending CL champion Bowsher (10-9, 7-3) in the other semifinal at 7:30 p.m. The championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, also at Waite.

Start’s current record, which gives Wortham’s surprising Spartans a chance to set a school record for most regular-season wins by a boys team, was in no one’s preseason forecast.

Having graduated four starters from last year’s team — which finished 11-10 overall and missed the CL playoffs after going 4-6 in league play — Start was picked to finish third in the CL this season.

“Coming into the year nobody knew who we were,” Wortham said. “We lost eight seniors, and about 90 percent of our scoring. Alex Perry was our only returning starter, and Devin Williams also played key minutes.

“We’ve just taken it one game at a time and tried to earn some respect. Our team kind of changed when we went to Chicago and played in a different environment.”

The Spartans went 3-1 and placed third in a 16-team tournament in Chicago between Christmas and New Year’s.

“We played some tough teams there and we came back at 7-2 [overall],” Wortham said. “The first game back, we got beat up pretty good by Rogers [60-49] on our home floor.”

Wortham, 30, is a 2005 Waite graduate who played, along with twin brother Mark, for former coach Dave Pitsenbarger’s Indians. He later spent five years as freshman coach under Pitsenbarger and a combined six seasons as junior varsity coach at Start under two other Waite grads and head coaches — brothers Gil and Joe Guerrero.

When Joe Guerrero returned to Bowsher as head coach last season, Wortham moved up to the Spartans’ varsity job, and is off to an impressive start in the top position.

“This is my second year, but it’s my first year having a summer [schedule] with the kids,” Wortham said. “We traveled a lot and we played in a lot of games together, and we started to build that team chemistry and that bond.”

The Spartans improved greatly between the first and second meetings with Rogers.

“We knew if we shared the basketball and ran our offense, we would do better against them the second time,” Wortham said. “We really locked in on [CL scoring leader] Christian Smith, and he only had five points the second time we played them.”

Devin Williams thinks the Spartans’ success starts at the top.

“I feel we have one of the best coaches in the City, who loves us outside of basketball and inside,” Williams said. “We love playing for him, and for each other.

“We were real hungry [at start of season]. We felt we didn’t have enough respect, and we still don’t. We still have a lot to prove in the City [playoffs] and in the tournament.”

Wortham, formerly a caddie at Inverness Club for 14 years, is in his second year as a paraprofessional with Toledo Public Schools. He is as proud of his players’ academic performance as their court exploits, noting eight of his 11 varsity players carry a 3.0 or higher grade-point average. Harris is on the City League’s all-academic team.

That aptitude has carried to the court, as the Spartans’ video study of the first Rogers game led to victory in the second meeting, according to Williams.

“We just locked in,” Williams said. “We knew what we did wrong the first game and just worked harder in practice. We came into that [second Rogers game] with a lot of intensity, and played as a team.

“If we lock in and continue to play the way we’ve been playing, I think we can come out as a City championship team.”

With respect comes an expectation to succeed.

“We were obviously under the radar before, but once we clinched the No. 1 seed, we’ve gone from being the hunter to the hunted,” Wortham said. “Being the underdog, you can play with a little less pressure on you.

“When you’re expected to win, there’s a lot more pressure. I hope our kids can step up. Hopefully we can extend that winning streak, and then keep playing good in the tournament.”

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade.

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