When prognosticating the fate of all the schools participating in the Alliance District of the Division I boys basketball tournament, Austintown Fitch High School head coach Brian Beany promised that the road would lead through Warren G. Harding.
"One of us will have to sneak up and get (Warren Harding)," Beany said in November.
That preseason prediction seemed unsatisfactory when the Raiders started this season 2-4. It lost more credibility when the Raiders cut ties with superstar player Derek Culver in January.
A 14-6 overall record and 11-1 in the All-American Conference Red Tier, however, has the Raiders rolling and seeded fourth in the upcoming tourney. If the Raiders dispose of undermanned Kent Roosevelt March 1 in the opening round as expected, they'll move on to face the 10th-seeded Falcons.
At that point, Beany's boys will become the team that needs to step up and beat the best.
"We knew we'd have to play (Harding) sometime (in the tournament)," Beany said.
At the very least, these Falcons will be battle-tested if the expected showdown with the Raiders arrives. Before the lid closes on the regular season, Fitch has a pair of grueling games left to play.
The Falcons hosted Alliance Tuesday before welcoming rival Boardman Friday and ending the regular season. Both Alliance and Boardman schools have combined for more than 30 wins this year, with one of Boardman's 17 victories coming over the Falcons.
Beany believes the brutal schedule his boys have contended with this year will have them ready for the likes of Harding. Tuesday's tilt with Alliance acted as a nice example of what the Falcons will see when they potentially play the Warren kids.
"We have a tough week ahead of us," Beany said over the weekend. "Alliance is so athletic so that makes them good preparation for Harding. Boardman finds ways to win games and is a rivalry game for us. It'll be a great test for us before the tournament."
The Falcons were outscored by Alliance, 15-9, in the final quater of Tuesday's nonconference tilt. Fitch went to the free-throw line just six times, compared to the Aviators' 22 free-throw attempts, Randy Smith made seven baskets for 20 points.
Alliance held Fitch to nine fourth-quarter points. Sarrick Simpson led with 15 points.
The Falcons are now 5-16 overall and 3-8 in the All-American Conference Red Tier.
Beany's bunch took another exam a week ago when they met up with Cardinal Mooney Friday at home. Although the Cardinals are struggling as much as the Falcons are this year, they are always a gritty group on the hardwood.
Perhaps the similarity between the two schools was the main reason why this matchup went down to the wire. It took a Herculean effort on both ends of the floor over the final couple minutes by Mooney senior Patrick Pelini to put down the Falcons, 42-40.
"Pelini scored eight points in like a minute and then he tipped Smith's shot at the end of the game to preserve the win," Beany said. "Again, there's that varsity experience. I can't overstate how important that experience is."
Mooney jumped on Fitch early and scored the game's first seven points. After Fitch battled back to tie the game at 11 apiece, the Falcons went on to control most of rest of the game.
Fitch was in front with a little more than two minutes left in the contest, but that lead dwindled due to Pelini's heroics.
"We learned again that we still have to play 32 minutes," Beany said. "It was a tough loss."
Emanuel Dawkins led the Falcons in scoring with 17 points, but it was the paltry combined point total from scoring machines Smith and Dylan Beany that destroyed Fitch's chance at a victory.
"(Smith and Dylan Beany) only scored 10 points combined," Brian Beany said. "We're in trouble if they don't score at least 25 combined."
Dylan Beany was in foul trouble most of the game Friday night. When the Falcons lost to the Raiders Jan. 31, it was Smith who fouled out. If that didn't happen, Fitch may have had a shot at shooting down Harding.
"Who knows what could have happened in that second game," Beany said. "We hung in with (Harding) pretty well that night."
It is definite that Fitch's first tournament tussle will take place March 4. The only remaining mystery is if it will be in Warren against the Raiders or at home against the Kent Roosevelt Rough Riders.
Odds are the busses will be revving up in Austintown for the trip to Trumbull County.