Businesses, Residents Rally Behind McDonald High School Basketball

MCDONALD, Ohio — Storefronts are few on the streets of McDonald. The town’s only restaurant closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not all visions are bleak venturing through these various paved roads.

The view is dominated by a white and blue block letter M embossed on driveways and appearing in yards throughout this southern Trumbull County village. This town rallies around its school, proud of its successful Blue Devils athletic programs.

McDonald High School assistant athletic director Randy Riccitelli says he’s astounded by the support he’s received from the community, especially by those community members and alumni who own businesses around the Mahoning Valley. Since March 2020, the athletic department received some $40,000 in donations, even funding a new hydrotherapy rehabilitation room for McDonald’s athletes, he says.

“We can’t thank the people enough for their support,” he adds.

McDonald High School senior Dominic Carkido plays on the state-ranked boys basketball team. The block M on his predominately white and blue uniform has a more holistic meaning than a boys basketball team seeking its 10th district championship.

McDonald High School senior Sophia Constantino shoots free throws during practice.

Success is part of the McDonald culture. The crisp, winter air does not hinder those high school distance runners preparing for an upcoming season, running along Ohio, Indiana, Iowa Avenues and other roads in the village. The boys and girls cross country teams, along with the track and field programs, have a combined 11 state championships. 

“I’ve been saying this my whole life, ‘McDonald breeds winners,’” Carkido says. “We expect to win in every sport. The town expects to win.”

Both the boys and girls basketball hold No. 1 seeds in their respective district tournaments. With a combined record of 36-3, they are two of the best teams in the Mahoning Valley. Players Molly Howard, Sophia Constantino and Jake Portolese all eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in their respective careers this season.

McDonald Mayor Marty Puckett has lived in the village for 18 years and sees his swath of southern Trumbull County impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports is the elixir around town, providing a “moral boost for everybody,” he says. And successful sports programs help attract new families to the village, he says.

“Hopefully, we get some new businesses because of getting an influx of people moving to the village,” Puckett says.

The McDonald High School gym holds around 900 people, but athletic director Josh Krumpak says only 150 are permitted to attend home games — limited to parents of athletes. The count is 85 spectators for the home side of the gymnasium and 65 for the visitors, he says. No one is allowed in the gymnasium’s balcony area during contests.

Fans of both basketball teams can watch games on YSN, either live or on demand.

“I think you know the community really rallies around them even though they’re not allowed to go to the games,” Puckett says. “There’s a lot of buzz every time somebody plays and people are talking about it on the internet. The whole energy of the community gets uplifted by both winning programs.”

James Franceschelli took over as head coach of the boys basketball team this year for longtime coach Jeff Rasile, whose team won a district championship last season. Franceschelli was Rasile’s assistant coach the past two seasons. 

Franceschelli’s team has a 19-1 record and utilizes a pressure-style defense when necessary, he says. On offense, the team averages more than a dozen 3-pointers per night. The boys team is on pace to break the school record and be in the top five of the Ohio High School Athletic Association record books for most 3-pointers by a team in a season.

“That’s a little bit different between me and Jeff is he had that mentality that we’re going to press and create pace every game,” Franceschelli says. “I’m a little bit different in the sense that I want to do what puts our guys in the best position to win that night.” 

McDonald basketball coach James Franceschelli talks to his team during practice.

McDonald girls basketball coach Tony Matisi mentored Lowellville and South Range High School girls basketball teams before coming to McDonald. He remains taken aback by sitting on the home side of the McDonald High School gymnasium. His team’s work ethic also astounds the veteran coach and first-year Blue Devils mentor.

“You’ve got to kick them out at a gym after practice. It’s just so refreshing,” Matisi says.

McDonald girls basketball assistant coach Michael Kollar coached with Matisi at South Range. Kollar says this McDonald team had the passing, dribbling, shooting and all the fundamentals, enhanced by former McDonald coaches Amy and Emily Dolsak. The aggressiveness on defense, however, needed to be encouraged.

That changed as the season progressed with more players starting to embrace that “killer instinct” against the opposition, Kollar says, working to secure the victory. As the girls team begins tournament play Feb. 17, hosting Warren John F. Kennedy High School, the goal is to hold opposing teams to fewer than 40 points.

“Hopefully our offense can carry us past the 40 mark and we win the game,” says Kollar as the girls team seeks its 10th district championship this postseason.

As aggressive as they are on defense, that doesn’t detract from their sportsmanship, he notes. On the first day of practice this season, he encouraged the players to show a little confidence and exhibit a swagger when getting off the bus to head into an opposing gymnasium.

Not so much, Matisi says, as a McDonald player helped one of her opponents to her feet after a play under the basket during a recent game

“They’re so good of kids that they can’t do that. They just can’t be cocky; they can’t be,” Matisi says.

It doesn’t take away from the team’s 17-2 record. Senior girls basketball player Taylor Tuchek says her team was prepared with its strong nonconference schedule, adding “it was a big help to get us ready for tournaments.” 

Postseason basketball had an air of uncertainty when the season started in late November, with some wondering if this winter sport would succumb to the invisible grasp of COVID-19.

The Trumbull County Board of Health urged high schools on November 30 to not play games or hold practices until January, just as the girls basketball season began. Some area high school basketball teams are not as fortunate as McDonald, and were temporarily shut down with positive COVID-19 cases. 

Krumpak stresses to his players to stay with their teammates and families, and not venture outside of that immediate circle. He hopes that caution keeps both teams playing during this COVID-19 pandemic. McDonald Local Schools superintendent Kevin O’Connell and McDonald High School principal Gary Carkido conduct contact tracing in the event of any positive diagnoses.

“We’re hoping they listen, continue to stay in their bubbles so we can continue to play,” Krumpak says.

Matisi contracted COVID and was hospitalized throughout December with double pneumonia. He came home in January, realizing he had some bleeding near his stomach. He showed a scar on the lower half of his chest to his bellybutton. Kollar coached the team in Matisi’s absence, until Matisi started coaching in late January.

“They had to cut me wide open,” Matisi says. “It’s been a long road. I’m better now.”

Franceschelli states Superintendent O’Connell spurred the team’s return on December 23. Since then, McDonald has played 20 of its 22 allotted regular-season games.

The Blue Devils play Lowellville Feb. 16 and state-ranked Struthers Feb. 19 before hosting Bloomfield on Feb. 23 in McDonald’s first tournament game.

Before the team’s regular-season return, Carkido states he and his teammates maintained their conditioning during the December shutdown. A couple of them were lifting weights and running every day. It was hard to shoot baskets outside, but they did when they could.

“I don’t think we missed a step,” Carkido says.

The girls did much of the same, says junior Lucia Wolford. Players kept practicing either by shooting baskets in their own driveways, or getting into gymnasiums, just not the one at McDonald High School.

The team abides by a fast tempo during practices, she says, and early-season preparation was painful.

“We were pushing ourselves for two hours straight every single day going as hard as we could,” Wolford said. “It was exhausting, but it’s definitely worth it now. We’re in such better shape than we were.”

Neither team ever took anything for granted, especially in this season of uncertainty because Portolese says “you never know what’s going to happen.”

One certainty is McDonald’s passion for athletics. Krumpak adds second- and third-generation families continue the tradition of Blue Devil sports. The pride trickles through the town, even those who do not have children in the McDonald system. Krumpak is a McDonald graduate, knowing what it means to be from this small southern Trumbull County village.

“You’re proud to be from here,” he says.

Pictured at top: McDonald High School sophomore Gregory Constantino shoots during practice.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.