Ironton, Fairland play amid sadness
IRONTON - As Ironton and Fairland lined up for Friday night's boys basketball regular-season finale, it was supposed to be a much-anticipated matchup of two of the best teams in southeastern Ohio.
In the grand scheme that aspect became a very small part of what the evening was about.
As the team's met on the court at the Conley Center for Ironton's 75-55 win over Fairland, they were on different ends of the world's spectrum that had nothing to do with basketball.
Friday night at the Conley Center, it was about family.
"That's a good way to put it -- family," Ironton coach Mark LaFon said.
For Ironton it was the final game on the Conley Center court for a large senior class who had grown up and fought together to build one of the more successful programs over the last decade in southeastern Ohio.
They've built a brotherhood through sports that carried them to a No. 1 seeding in next week's Division III district tournament in Jackson.
Fairland has also built a brotherhood and success this season in earning a No. 2 seeding Division II district tournament next week at Southeastern High School near Chillicothe.
However, the Dragons' bond grew closer this week after the passing of two of the program's supporters - Ernie Hall and Becky Salyers.
Fairland's team stopped by the funeral home for Hall's services on the way to the Conley Center, which came hours after learning of the unexpected passing of Becky Salyers, mother of assistant coach and former Fairland standout Evan Salyers, who graduated last year.
The team woke up on Friday to find out Becky Salyers had passed, and head coach Nathan Speed said the guys were leaning on each other during the difficult time.
Part of that grieving process was playing in Friday night's game.
"We're definitely in shock losing two of our friends at Fairland," Speed said. "It's difficult to deal with, so it was nice to come out and play and get our minds off of things a little bit. Our team is our family outside of our family, and we hope those families know that they are a part of our family, too, and we'll do whatever we can for them."
Before the Senior Night festivities began LaFon walked out to center court and addressed the crowd. He wanted to let the Fairland contingent know that his heart was with them and that they all shared in the pain.
He then asked for a moment of silence which spoke volumes about the importance of sports in the lives of kids, even outside of just the game itself.
"There was so much to be said, and I don't know if I did it right, but I knew the people who had passed, I knew they had been there and sat in the stands," LaFon said. "That very thing being talked about (family), that's what tonight was about."
LaFon also recalled last year's graciousness in the regular-season finale at Fairland when the Dragons had allowed for Ironton to honor Zac Carter, who had reached the 1,000-point plateau.
The Fighting Tigers were not going to be able to honor Carter at home, so they asked to do it at Fairland. It was senior captain Evan Salyers who made the decision that Ironton could do it.
"It was on their Senior Night and they didn't have to do that," LaFon said. "Salyers was the kid that said yes to it. It goes beyond basketball and into that family thing and it needed to be expressed that we're with them."
Speed was appreciative of the pre-game gesture from LaFon.
"I can't say enough about them taking time out to do that and what a class act he and his kids are for doing that for us and saying those kind words," Speed said. "Everyone around our program knows Evan and his family and how much they've meant to us and that makes it more difficult because you want to find the right things to say."
Ironton's seniors came out strong and built a quick 16-3 lead to put the game away early.
Fairland fought back and got within eight, but no closer.
Ironton's Trey Fletcher and Zac Carter finished their Conley Center career strong -- Fletcher with 18 points and eight rebounds and Carter with 10 points, nine assists. They also got to cheer on their fellow seniors like Darrius Boykin and Jalen Schweickart in the final quarter after coming out to an ovation.
Still, the night wasn't about points or victories.
FAIRLAND 14 9 11 21 -- 55: Short 6, Midkiff 6, Braye 8, Maddox 6, Warner 5, Wireman 2, Raines 2, Phillips 4, McComas 2, Beaty 6, Flynn 8.
IRONTON 29 10 16 20 -- 75: Stephens 4, Boykin 8, Long 1, Schweickart 7, Bowling 2, Glover 6, Garred 7, White 7, Fletcher 18, Cox 5, Carter 10.