Strafford is feeling good about its chances of winning a district title even after suffering a foul-plagued defeat to rival Fair Grove on Friday.

The Indians host their Class 3 district that began play on Tuesday against Pleasant Hope. Despite several losses to close the regular season, including the 59-51 loss to the Eagles, Strafford head coach Tyler Ryerson feels good about the outlook entering the postseason. “Even losing three of the last four, we’re confident in our ability to fix some things,” he said.

Some of that optimism is because the losses have come to several of the state’s best programs. At 17-8, half of Strafford’s losses have come to ranked sides, including at Skyline (Feb. 14), the No. 3 team in Class 2.

“We’ve run through the gauntlet of Class 2 teams –– Crane, Skyline and Hartville, we’ve got whipped by all them, so I’m glad we’re not [in Class 2],” Ryerson said. “But we played really well at Skyline, and at Crane, we had a nine-point lead going into the fourth and they made tough shots. Part of it is, we haven’t played great, but the teams we’ve played have really played well.”

On a night where the Indians also honored their seven seniors, it was hard for either team to establish a rhythm. A total of 51 fouls were called, 31 of them attributed to Strafford. That led to a total of 36 free-throws attempted by the schools combined in the fourth quarter.

“[With the fouls], we couldn’t get the pace of play to where we liked it, we we could get out and run in the open floor and put pressure on them defensively,” Ryerson said. “Every time, there was a set defense [we were facing] because we were throwing the ball inbounds. To their credit, Fair Grove made a lot of shots.”

Tied at halftime at 23, Fair Grove outscored Strafford 10-5 in the third quarter. The Eagles extended the lead to 10, but on the same possession that Fair Grove’s Ryan Berry fouled Zak Lutgen on a made basket, Strafford rebounded the missed ensuing free throw and Seth Soden hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game to slice the lead to five.

Fair Grove made two more costly errors down the stretch –– the Eagles fouled Clay Lawson on a made 3 once, and later sent Sawyer Lumley to the line for four made free throws due to a technical foul –– but their 17-of-24 shooting at the line was good enough to come out on top in front of a packed house.

“I’m not sure it's important [as a result] for the district, but it's important for the rivalry,” Ryerson said. “For Fair Grove to come to our place and beat us, that’s a tough one to swallow. They’ve got us two years in a row to end our [regular] season. I know it’s not the easiest thing to lose to a school the same size 10 miles away, but we play on Tuesday and we can’t hang our heads about it.”

Entering Friday, Strafford was undefeated against teams within its district. The Indians are a combined 3-0 against prospective semifinal opponents, Forsyth and Hollister, and also own a 56-53 win over second-seeded Springfield Catholic.

Depth is also in favor of District 11’s top-seeded side.

“The long bench, I think that’s one of our biggest strengths,” Ryerson said. “We can really empty it out. We played 12 guys against Fair Grove, including Nick [Losh].”

Losh, who tore his ACL his sophomore year, then again in the preseason this year, was recognized with a brief appearance at the close of the contest.

“Nick came in and got the shot at the end, and it was nice to see him get out on the floor one last time,” Ryerson said.

District semifinals will be played Thursday night in Strafford, with the championship at stake on Saturday at 5 p.m.

Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.

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