Garfield Heights emerges as power in Northeastern Ohio hoops

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Garfield Heights Boys Basketball
For many years the Garfield Heights Bulldogs escaped afterthought
status in boys basketball. The bad part is they weren’t thought of at
all.That was then, this is now. And now this perennial also-ran is arguably
the premier team in Northeast Ohio. These Bulldogs have bite. Garfield Heights has blitzed through its first 13 games and is
currently ranked No. 1 in Cleveland by the Plain Dealer and No. 10 in
the state according to the AP.


For many years the Garfield Heights Bulldogs escaped afterthought status in boys basketball. The bad part is they weren’t thought of at all.

That was then, this is now. And now this perennial also-ran is arguably the premier team in Northeast Ohio. These Bulldogs have bite.

Garfield Heights has blitzed through its first 13 games and is currently ranked No. 1 in Cleveland by the Plain Dealer and No. 10 in the state according to the AP. Last season the Bulldogs won their first conference championship since 1962 by earning the Lake Erie League Erie Division title. A similar script is the goal.

But lest one think that the primary objective of head coach and former Garfield Heights standout Sonny Johnson is simply to win, one should think again. The 1998 Mr. Basketball in Ohio has far loftier ambitions.

“Winning is not my goal,” he says. “I don’t push for kids just to win games. We go to church together once a month. We have cookouts at my house once a month. We see a movie together once a month. That helps build relationships and team chemistry. I like to win, but getting these kids scholarships and getting them a great education – those are my main goals.”

That mission certainly hasn’t undermined Johnson’s push to transform the Bulldogs into an area power. But a sensational core of players has played the primary role in the team’s unparalleled success.

The starting backcourt of 5-foot-10 junior point guard Carl Jones and senior Robert Wilson is easily the best in the area and arguably in the state. Jones, who is receiving plenty of attention from Division I college scouts despite his frame, is racking up 27 points and 5.3 assists a game while shooting 51 percent from 3-point range. The 6-5 Wilson, who has already landed a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, is averaging 21 points and 8.4 rebounds a game.

Senior power forward Paul McQueen is averaging 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. McQueen has particularly impressed Johnson, who recently compiled a highlight tape of the senior for college coaches to study.

Add to the mix junior wing Roy Brown, as well as senior guard Anthony Steplight and freshman guard Trey Lewis, and it’s no wonder the Bulldogs have developed into one of the most explosive teams in the state.

“We like to pressure the ball and speed up the tempo,” Johnson explains. “And we have great guards – that’s how you win basketball games and that’s how you win state. Plus we do a great job of playing half-court defense. We create a lot of turnovers. We have great scorers and we not only have the ability to create turnovers, but of scoring off turnovers. That’s been a big key to our success.”

The Bulldogs have certainly not forgotten their district final loss to Solon a year ago. They avenged that defeat, which came on the heels of a impressive semifinal defeat of Bedford, by dismantling the Comets earlier this season by more than 50 points. But the motivation to take at least one more step in the 2008 playoffs has inspired them to achieve an unbeaten record so far during the regular season.

“We’re working very hard to go further than we did last year,” Johnson says. “Last year we got a taste of playing in front of bigger crowds. We want to continue to take steps forward as a program, which means we’d like to play past the district final this year.”

Though Jones will still be around next season and the Bulldogs boast a strong group of underclassmen, the loss of Wilson, McQueen and Steplight to graduation could mean the Bulldogs must maximize their playoff potential this year. The loss of Wilson alone will certainly take a toll. Johnson has been particularly impressed with the senior’s talent and versatility.

“What makes Robert special is that he can do so much,” Johnson says. “His passing, his rebounding – and he’s very unselfish. He understands that he doesn’t have to score 20 points for us to win.”

And winning is something the Bulldogs do plenty of these days.

Times have indeed changed.

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