VAN BUREN - It is safe to say that the 350 or so folks who live in the cozy little Hancock County village of Van Buren get pretty fired up when it comes to their sports teams in general and their basketball teams in particular.
That is, in an average season.
In a season such as this, when the Black Knights boys basketball team is off to a 14-0 start and ranked third in the latest Ohio Division III poll, things could not be better.
The Knights and visiting Liberty-Benton (13-0) take matching 6-0 Blanchard Valley Conference marks into tonight's highly anticipated showdown. The Eagles are ranked No. 1 in Division III.
"Van Buren is a basketball community dating back to the 1970s," eighth-year Van Buren coach E.J. Frost said, "and the community expects excellence, year in and year out. They're showing that they're very appreciative of these kids."
What Frost's junior-dominated Knights lack in court experience compared to L-B, they hope to offset tonight with the energy and noise they anticipate from their home crowd, and with their trademark unselfish style.
Frost estimates the Van Buren gym will be able to pack in between 1,200 and 1,400 spectators, and all but 400 of those will be Knights fans.
"I think it's going to be a good barometer for each team to gauge quickness, their ability to stop us and our ability to stop them," Frost said. "I believe our kids feel that we're the underdog. They're No. 1 in Division III and we're No. 3 in Division IV. Still, we're within the same conference and we know each other and we've had some wars over the past few years.
"We will never fear Liberty-Benton, but we have a lot of respect for their abilities."
A loud home crowd can only provide emotion, so the Van Buren players will have to do the rest. The Knights are outscoring their opposition by an average score of 67.9 to 46.4 per game.
Leading the way is the 1-2 junior punch of 6-3 Matt Phillips, who averages 18.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, and 6-0 Logan Grant, who contributes 14 points an outing.
"There's a lot of togetherness on this team compared to last year," Phillips said. "We were young. This year we're having fun and taking one game at a time and we're coming out strong. We've got big guys inside and we have good guards that can shoot."
What does Grant credit for the Knight's improvement from a 9-12 finish last year?
"It's our teamwork," he said. "Our passing is so much better and nobody looks to be the main player. We just run the plays so much better, and we've been in some situations.
"Last year we were almost all new to the varsity game. This year, everything has slowed down and the game is coming easier to us."
After Phillips and Grant, who rarely come off the floor, Frost employs a regular six-man rotation that involves starters Matt Fetter, Andrew Decker and point guard Chase Marshall along with top subs Ray Wolfe, Adam Greer and Colin Stoffel.
Fetter, a 6-5, 250-pound senior post player, brings five points and 2.5 rebounds, while junior Decker and senior Marshall add 8.9 points and five points, respectively, to the mix.
Wolfe, a 6-5, 260-pound junior post backup to Fetter, contributes 8.1 points and just under six rebounds per game.
"The thing about these guys is that they have a tremendous amount of chemistry," said Frost, a 1977 Van Buren graduate who has also coached at Vanlue in the BVC and Hopewell-Loudon in the Midland Athletic League for a 204-139 career mark.
"They distribute the ball to each other and they're not selfish. They have terrific shooting percentages - about 55 percent from two-point range and from 3-pointers we're at about 38.
"Defensively, they're all good athletes. They bring a lot of skills as a whole to the job, but they also bring a lot of camaraderie and good team play."
Phillips, Grant and their teammates didn't just begin focusing on Liberty-Benton over the past week.
"We've had this game marked on our schedule for a long time," Phillips said. "We knew we had a chance to be where we are right now. We knew we had the guys to do it. It wasn't easy to get to this point, and [tonight] is going to be the biggest test of the year by far.
"I can't even sleep at night thinking about this game. I've been trying to go to bed at 9 o'clock, but I can't fall asleep until about 11:30."
Grant echoes Phillips' anticipation.
"It's hard to say that you didn't look ahead," Grant said. "Everybody does. But it's finally here, so we can look ahead now. There is definitely pressure in this game. It's a huge game, but this is what a lot of people like to play the game for.
"We can't [afford to] be intimidated and we've got to run the floor and keep moving, because they have a lot of speed. We have to keep it moving and make them play defense. No matter how much experience you have it's hard to prepare for a game like this."
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