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Lafferty matches career high with 41 points and Loveland also provides Trojans a lift


From an entertainment standpoint, Jake Lafferty absolutely delighted the home crowd with his handful of dunks and 41 points in Sparta’s 83-37 whipping of New Covenant in a Class 3 District 11 first-round mismatch Tuesday.

But for fans knowing the Trojans can’t be one-dimensional the rest of their post-season trail, Walker Loveland’s 13-point effort was perhaps the most encouraging development on the night.

Loveland was coming off a scoreless outing against Seymour last week. For the second half of this season he had become a bit too unselfish from the perspective of coach Deric Link.

“We told him, ‘We can't have any more games moving forward where you don't score,’” Link said. “He's more than just a pass-first point guard. First half of this season, he did a good job of that. The second half of the year, he got his teammates involved and got their confidence up. Now it's time for him to get back into it. We want to make sure he knows we have confidence in him and his abilities and we are giving him the green light to look for opportunities to score.”

Loveland responded by scoring 11 points in the first half alone Tuesday.

"What (Link) has been telling me is 8-10 points is what he's asking for from me,” Loveland said. “(Tonight), I was trying to make myself a threat.  We were struggling at first and I remember thinking, "We need something to get us going.' I went in and tried to get (a layup).”

Pass-first is a role Loveland has whole-heartedly accepted over the years.

“From seventh grade all the way up, we've never thought of me as a shooter,” he said. “We thought I was the guy who was going to get (others) a shot. That was my job in middle school and same thing my freshman, sophomore and junior years. I never needed to score.”

But Loveland has learned he can’t have opposing defenses completely back away from him. He felt in Sparta’s loss at Hartville a year ago that the Eagles weren’t worried about him shooting and double-teamed other Trojans.

“Hartville not having to guard me, in my opinion, is the reason we struggled so much in the second half and lost that game,” he said.

Loveland is more mindful now to make defenses account for him.

"Making them acknowledge me as a threat will benefit us in the long run,” he said. “I have to make (opponents) guard me because that makes it easier for Jake, Trenton (Ingle) and Braylen (Luttrull) to get theirs.”

Lafferty matched his career-high. He also had 41 this season against Marshfield.

Sparta’s single-game school record of 54 points, held by Randy McIntyre, has stood for 60 years.

Lafferty bemoaned the fact he could have set a new single-game high for himself if not for missed a dunk, “Or if I would have made more free throws.”

Lafferty didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. He had 26 points and eight rebounds by halftime.

Link is in his sixth season as a head coach and knows he may not coach a better player than Lafferty the rest of his career.

“If I don't, that's okay. You always hope you do,” Link said. “I don't think as a coach you want to compare your players and rank them. You just want to enjoy each moment you get from each one of them. It's about relationships.

“He's a pleasure to coach and I'm glad I get to coach him and not coach against him,” Link added. “The way he plays and the way he attacks a game, on the court and off the court, inspires people around him to be better., He does a great job of getting the best out of everybody. That's one of the best compliments you can give a kid.”

As the No. 2 seed, Sparta (22-5) was in action Tuesday, while No. 1 seed Fair Grove (20-6) received a bye. A year ago, the Trojans had a first-round bye.

“You got to love to play, no matter what," Link said. “Everyone wants the one seed, but our kids want to play more than they want to practice and it's always fun to compete. It was nice to get ramped up and ready to play.

“There's not a game from here on out, for however long we're blessed to be playing, that's not going to be tough,” he added. “We’re going to have to be tough mentally and physically. I think we've got a special group and anybody we play has got a special group.”

Sparta moves on meet No. 3 Greenwood (22-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday in what figures to be one of the best District semifinal games statewide. The Trojans beat the Blue Jays 43-40 at the Blue & Gold Tournament.

Greenwood features an all-stater of its own in guard Collin Clark.

“This is our last ride, I guess you could call it. I’m excited,” Lafferty said. “I'm expecting (Clark) to be more aggressive this time. I'm expecting him to come after us. We've got to be prepared for their best.”