When the final buzzer sounded last Friday night, there was plenty of smiles to go around in the Westlake gymnasium.
A little bit of history was made as well.
The Demons had just gained a hard-fought win over Olmsted Falls, 69-63, to win a share of the Southwestern Conference boys basketball championship. For Westlake, 18-2 overall and 12-2 in the league, it was the second hoops title in four years and just the fourth in the last 21 seasons.
But no team in the program’s history had won at least a share of the title with a first-year head coach. Former Cleveland State standout Shawn Hood achieved that honor, taking over last year’s 11-10 squad and leading it to a co-championship.
“I’m really happy for our kids, especially our seniors,” said Hood Friday night after his team had cut down the nets. “To see their faces when we won tonight, there’s no better feeling.”
It wasn’t easy, though, on the rookie head coach. The Demons trailed big early on and had to fight back to force a halftime tie before finally pulling away in the second half.
Hood said senior Grant Gase’s defense, along with some clutch shooting, allowed his team to come out on top.
“I think I was still recovering from the first half,” Hood said of his feelings during the net-cutting ceremony. “I mean, what a scary time. If it weren’t for Grant taking the game over defensively, I don’t know what would have happened. There’s not a ton of guys who can take over a game defensively, and he did that early in the second half.
“After that, we were ready to battle. We were focused and had guys hit some big shots,” he said.
Friday marked just the 10th time Westlake was able to cut down the nets at the end of the season. The previous three came in 2009, 1995 and 1992. Under the legendary Norm Irwin, the Demons won the SWC crown six time in seven seasons from 1973 through 1979.
But the current band of Demons weren’t thinking too much about the past. They only knew the present, and were obviously happy to be a part of it.
“We won it my freshman year, and to finally do it again our senior year, we couldn’t be happier,” Gase said as the music blared on and the players, coaches, parents and fans celebrated on the court.
“We knew it could happen, but we also knew we had to work for it,” Gase said. “We came out a little slow in the first half, but after awhile we were able to put it in gear. We weren’t about to lose this game. Not on senior night, and not with this crowd.
“In the second quarter when we were slowly crawling back into the game, they were starting to miss and we were getting the rebounds. I think that’s when we felt we were back in control,” he added.
Fellow senior Ezzat Assad tipped his hat to Falls, but said he knew his team could battle back from the early deficit.
“We got off to a rough start, but we picked up the intensity after that,” Assad said. “Falls was a tough team tonight. The first time we played them it was a good game. Tonight with a big crowd, they came out tough. They played us hard and did a great job.
“This was everything I thought this game would be. Since my freshman year, all I wanted was an SWC championship. I’m proud to be on this team. It’s my first year at point guard, and I’m happy to help lead this team to a victory. It’s a great feeling,” he said.
For Hood, a member of CSU’s Sweet 16 squad, snipping off his share of the net was old hat. While he was pleased with the conference co-championship, he didn’t hesitate to reveal his next goal for his squad.
“For me, I’ve done all of that,” Hood said. “Like I said, I’m happy for our kids because I know how much this means to them.
“What I’ll really enjoy is a district championship. That’s what I would really love to get,” Hood said. “This team is good. I felt from the first time I met them last summer that we would have the chance to be very competitive in our conference.
“I said that to everyone, and they did what I thought they could do. Now, to go out and play well in the tournament, that would be special,” he added.
The road to a district championship begins this Friday night at the Midview Division I sectional-district tournament. The Demons will take on Strongsville, which scored a 62-58 overtime win over North Olmsted Monday night, in the second game of a doubleheader.