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Chardon senior forward Nathanael Sulka (center) drives into the paint to initiate some offense during the Hilltoppers’ 77-58 victory on Dec. 30 at The Barn.

The Chardon Hilltoppers boys’ basketball team has a lot of ground to make up. The Hilltoppers overcame a slow start and defeated Geneva 77-58 last Thursday evening at The Barn.

“To be able to beat Geneva at home is a good feeling,” said Coach Chad Murawski. “It takes us a little bit to get going but once we are able to get going, it seems that we’re firing on enough cylinders to win.”

The start of Chardon’s (2-0, 0-0) basketball season was delayed due to another long run in the OHSAA football playoffs leading to another state title.

Once the Hilltoppers’ season started, they ran into another roadblock when most of their opponents cancelled or postponed games due to COVID concerns. While Chardon remains undefeated to start the season, it still is playing catch-up.

Of Chardon’s first five scheduled games, only two of those games have actually been played.

Despite falling behind the curve in a stacked Western Reserve Conference, Murawski is not about to make any excuses.

“Nobody cares about how far behind we are,” he said. “We have to suck it up and get to work and that’s something we try and do every day.”

Geneva raced out to a 15-6 lead in the opening quarter. The Hilltoppers looked rusty by committing six turnovers and seemed on the verge of falling out of the game quickly.

Senior guard/forward Nathanael Sulka helped key a Chardon run by sinking a pair of free throws and then hit a three-pointer to trim Geneva’s lead to 15-11 near the end of the first quarter. The 6-foot-5 senior scored seven points in the first quarter to help wake up Chardon’s offense.

With last year’s leading scorer Brady Toth graduating, Sulka has become the focal point of Chardon’s offense this season.

Becoming the primary scorer has not been an issue so far for Sulka.

“I don’t really feel the pressure,” he said. “I was expecting to but we have a lot of good players and a lot of depth so it hasn’t been any crazy kind of pressure.”

Chardon continued its run by scoring four more points to end the quarter on a 9-0 run to tie the game entering the second quarter.

The Hilltoppers continued pushing the pace in the second quarter and went on a 13-3 run to open up a ten-point lead in the middle of the quarter. Senior forward/guard Nathan Tager helped key Chardon’s surge by knocking down a pair of three pointers.

Murawski admitted it would be tough to find players capable of filling the scoring void left by Toth, but Tager has delivered by developing a lethal outside shot allowing the Hilltoppers to space the floor more efficiently.

“Nathan’s stepped up,” said the six-year coach. “He’s a player that can score all over the court. He rebounds, hustles and plays hard. He’s a 6-foot-4 player that can score from the outside and post up on the inside. Those are blessings to have.”

Tager led Chardon with 21 points, nine rebounds and recorded two blocks.

The Hilltoppers’ defense made some adjustments in the second quarter and forced eight Geneva turnovers and held the Eagles to only one field goal to take a 36-18 lead at the break.

“We popped out at the ball faster,” noted Tager. “We moved our feet a lot quicker, boxed out a lot better, got the rebounds and really denied Geneva’s shooters. We have to get hyped off the tip and just be more ready in the first quarter.”

According to Murawski, it was great to see his team close out the half on a strong note even when Sulka headed to the bench.

The Eagles came out of halftime with some fire in their belly by going on a 19-9 run trimming the Hilltoppers’ lead to eight points in the middle of the third quarter. Geneva started heating up from long-range and drained three triples and forced five Hilltoppers’ turnovers.

Chardon weathered the storm by going on an 11-5 run to increase its lead back to 14 points at the end of the third quarter.

The Hilltoppers then pushed their lead to 65-45 in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.

“We just found what works best for us,” Tager said. “We pushed the ball up the floor quickly. That’s something we do really well and I feel the more we do that the more we can keep ourselves in the lead.”

Sulka was Chardon’s second-leading scorer by tallying 17 points, collecting six rebounds and dishing out four assists. Senior forward Merrik Cunningham paced Geneva with 23 points, four rebounds and one assist followed by junior guard Anthony Kosicek who scored 17 points, grabbed four rebounds and recorded three assists.

Chardon improved its record to 3-0 with a comeback victory against Cardinal at home on Jan. 3.

Following a home game against WRC rival Willoughby South on Jan. 4, the Hilltoppers will welcome conference foe Riverside to Chardon on Jan. 7 for a 7:30 p.m. tip.

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