Nov. 18—Last year had the end of Mentor's four-year streak of advancing to regional come to an end when the Cardinals fell in a district semifinal to Nordonia.
This season, the Cardinals come in not just with the mindset of returning to regional, but ready to tackle a challenging schedule. Not only do they see the usual gauntlet in Greater Cleveland Conference play, but the out-of-conference schedule is going to challenge Mentor even more.
With a Christmas trip to Bristol, Tenn., for the Arby's Classic and road trips against Canton GlenOak, Cincinnati Moeller and Lutheran East, Coach Bob Krizancic knows it's going to be a challenge for his players.
Mentor returns four starters and is led by the senior duo of Matthew Biddell and Ian Ioppolo. But along with them, Kobe Frasure-Azzano and Ryan Calo have worked a lot in the offseason to be able to help Mentor prepare for the pace at which it wants to play this season.
"You need to get stronger as the year goes on to make a run at the end of the year," Krizancic said. "Learn through the year, and that's what we've been talking about going into this year. Our schedule is going to test us and push us as far as we can. It's one of the toughest schedules we've had in a long time.
"The biggest thing on Kobe and Ryan is going to be their physical strength. Ryan put on 30 pounds since last year, and Kobe has gotten a lot stronger. We're trying to speed up more than in the past, and the conditioning is going to be a big part of it."
With four returning starters, that left one open hole they needed someone to fill. Enter senior Connor O'Brien. Last season, he played in specific situations such as foul trouble or when Mentor had a big lead.
This preseason, his teammates have already seen O'Brien take strides to be the voice in the paint with an ability to control the boards. Biddell has seen his impact early in practice.
Not only has O'Brien been able to control the boards, but he's also been able to make smart decisions on second- and third-chance looks whether it's passing the ball or going up.
"You can already see his improvement in his shooting," Biddell said. "He allows us to spread the floor and open up looks from beyond the arc. He also brings the physicality we need on the inside. Rebounding, offensive boards, he's able to get us extra possessions and can also finish inside. He adds another layer to our abilities."
While the starting five are already developing chemistry, Mentor has also focused on its depth as it aims to push the pace. Last season saw a very short rotation for the Cardinals, but they aim to have several options available to them.
With players such as Ayo Olulami, Marcus Sierputowski and Tanner Toot available off the bench when needed, Ioppolo is excited to see how they can use that depth in the season. If practice is any indication, it's going to be another strong season for the Cardinals.
"We had a lot of guys work really hard in the offseason," Ioppolo said. "Every day in practice, everyone is competing for a spot. I'm honestly very glad to see them continue to improve at their game. A lot of people were bigger and stronger, but we all need to be able to turn on that switch. We need everyone to be able to play tough and hard to be able to get to regionals or even further."
Having that depth is something Krizancic knows will help with the pace of play they want to have. The Cardinals' press defense has been a problem for teams to solve for years, and Krizancic wants to see that same tempo on the offensive end.
The players are already adjusting to the speed of the offense and know is something that can pay dividends. With big games plastered all over their schedule, the pace of play is going to be important in every contest.
"If we're deep, we're going to be able to run a lot more," Krizancic said. "Tanner in our first scrimmage against Louisville had 40 with 12 3s. It's not a surprise but great to see. Tony Katava is a big sophomore — we have high expectations for him. Makel Harrison coming off the bench, we will be a lot deeper and be able to play nine to 10 guys.
"It eliminates our guys not having to carry things for most of a quarter. If we can go on a run and see guys be able to go in sprints of a few minutes, that's huge as you want to have that same type of tempo."
Biddell added: "My sophomore year we played at that tempo we wanted, but last year we were a lot slower. It was off of our usual pace. To have that depth, it allows us to be able to continue bringing in fresh legs. Just in our scrimmages we are already clicking and we have that experience as well which is a great thing to already have developing."
Mentor begins their season Dec. 8 when it travels to Strongsville, which also starts GCC play.