In what will seemingly be a toss-up in D-II tourney, Toledo Libbey, Chillicothe and Poland Seminary have all made it to the dance before while St. Paris Graham is making its inaugural trip to Columbus.
Eight former state champions make up the field for the 86th Annual OHSAA Boys Basketball State Championship but each of the teams in Division II are in the hunt for their first state title.
Toledo Libbey, Chillicothe and Poland Seminary have all made it to the dance before while St. Paris Graham is making its inaugural trip to Columbus.
And it appears to be a toss up as to which team is going to raise the state trophy for the first time.
Wrestling is usually the first sport that comes to mind when thinking about St. Paris Graham (26-0) but the Falcons cagers have shown their prominence on the hardwood this season.
“It has helped our guys being around (the wrestling team) and they recognized the hard work they put in and the payoff they get from that,” Graham head coach Brook Cupps said. “I hope it continues and carries on. It is a good lesson for high school kids to learn.”
The Graham grapplers claimed their eighth straight Division II state title two weeks ago and are widely regarded as the top high school team in the country.
While the basketball team might not be recognized on the national level, the Falcons are one of the state’s best finishing the season ranked No. 5 in the final state poll and knocking off Cincinnati Taft, Canal Winchester and Kettering Alter on the road to the Final Four.
“I really think our trip to the tournament has been as challenging as anyone’s,” Cupps said. “We’re a farm school and probably fit better into Division III with the dynamics of our school.
“Going through Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton is a pretty tough task for anybody. I think this area of the state in Division II basketball is pretty strong.”
The Falcons are paced by junior guard and second team All-Ohio selection Josh Schuler with 19.7 points per game. Schuler is the only Graham player recognized with state honors this year.
Junior guard Austin Jones adds 11.1 ppg with forwards Travis Crooks tallying 6.3 ppg and Ethan Ward registering 10.9 ppg, respectively. Guard Ben Rosenberger nets 6.9 ppg.
Schuler and Jones played for Graham as freshmen and Cupps attributes that experience to this season’s success.
“We took some heat for it but it looks like a pretty good decision, which we thought at the time,” Cupps said about playing Schuler and Jones at a young age. “Those kids have really gotten other kids on board and we have a dedicated group.”
While Graham doesn’t necessarily boast any superstars on the roster, the Falcons employ a team-style of play on the court.
“We’re very team oriented offensively and defensively,” said Cupps. “We rebound by committee, we defend by committee and we score by committee. So, we’re about as team-oriented as you can get and that’s really been the only way we’ve been successful.”
This season marks only the second District Championship for Graham with the last coming in the 1971-72 season. The Falcons lost in the sectional finals each of the previous two seasons to Tipp City Tippecanoe.
“It’s been a neat experience for our guys. Everything is new,” Cupps said. “Coming into the regional (tournament) and state, they don’t know what to expect but have come to do what they have done all season. It is pretty good solid and fundamental basketball. It’s our claim to fame and it is how we play.”
Last season, Graham finished 14-9 and the basketball team committed itself in the off-season to take the team to the next level with nearly 80 summer games and a rigorous scrimmage schedule that included Dayton Dunbar, Huber Height Wayne, Cincinnati St. Xavier and New Knoxville, to name a few.
“We were a team last year where we started playing pretty good basketball towards the end of the season and started playing the way I thought could make us successful,” Cupps said.
“We had had a really good summer and these guys responded to it and not only thought they could start competing at that level but actually did compete. So, that kind of verified the stuff that we were doing and the things that we were telling them.
And with wins over some formidable opponents in the tournament, Graham enters the state Final Four with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
“For us, we’ve just go to do what we’ve got to do and that’s what we’ve talked about all season, especially in the tournament,” said Cupps. “Our kids are very poised, they keep their composure, they play hard and to this point they haven’t backed down from anybody.”
The next team on the docket that Graham is aiming to knock off is Toledo Libbey in a state semifinal tilt. The Falcons and Cowboys tip-off this year’s state tournament Thursday, March 13 at 10:45 a.m.
Libbey, which finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in the final state poll, is in the state tournament for the sixth time in school history in its first season in Division II after dropping from the big school Division.
“We no longer had to play (Toledo) St. John’s,” head coach Leroy Bates joked. “That’s been our nemesis the last seven or eight years. To that extent (being in Division II) has been a good thing for us.”
Of course, Libbey (23-2) is led by Division II co-player of the year and Ohio State recruit William Buford. The 6-5 senior poured in 22.6 ppg this season and has guided the Cowboys to the Final Four through leading his team on and off the court, according to Bates.
“(Buford) is not a loud boisterous-type of person,” he said. “On the court he leads by example. He is just a well-round individual and that is the best way to describe him. He has his value system in place by his family and it shows whether he is on the basketball court or he is in the community.”
Senior forward Julius Wells and Lance Jones added 11.7 ppg and 5.6 ppg, respectively, with Brad Sandridge and Tony Brown netting 11.3 ppg and 8.4 ppg in the backcourt.
Bates, in his 16th season at the helm of Libbey, last guided the Cowboys to the state Final Four in 2000 where they lost to Bedford in the Division I semifinals. But Bates is not concerned about how his team is going to respond playing on the big stage.
“Fortunately for us we (played at the Schottenstein Center) last year and were there again this year so we’ve been there and hopefully it should give us a little advantage,” he said. “But I know the fans from Graham are going to be loud and ready to pump up their team so it is going to be a different type of situation.”
Bates offered his thoughts on Libbey’s semifinal opponent.
“(Graham is) a well-rounded team, they play extremely well together, shoot the ball well together and rebound well together,” he said. “There is no ‘outstanding player’ on the level of some people that we’ve played but they are definitely a school that represents the word ‘team’ in every sense of the game.”
And Cupps is well aware of what the Cowboys bring to the court.
“The athleticism and the length of Libbey is a concern,” he said.
The other side of the bracket is just as impressive with Poland Seminary and Chillicothe tipping off Thursday, March 13 at 2:00 p.m.
Poland is in the Final Four for the fourth time in school history and the Bulldogs have bowed out of the state tournament in the semifinal round each time, including last season.
Even though the Bulldogs are in the Final Four for the second straight year, this year’s team is a far cry from what last year’s team brought to the court.
“We kind of adopted a form of Upper Sandusky’s style of play,” head coach Ken Grisdale said.
Poland (25-0), which topped the final state poll this season, lost to Upper Sandusky 89-58 in the state semifinals last year.
“When that game was over, I had never been so frustrated in my life as a coach because we couldn’t do anything that we normally did. Our part of the state is half-court basketball, you’ll press when you have to, you come down and run sets and we had over 70 sets over the last few years. And we couldn’t do any of it.”
Grisdale, who was named the Division II co-coach of the year, enlisted the help of Upper Sandusky head coach Keith Diebler.
“We went and talked to coach Diebler and spent a day with him and talked about his system. He thought the key to this system is length rather than height and athleticism. We thought we had those types of kids for that system,” Grisdale said.
But he admitted there was some apprehension with completely changing the system.
“We were a little concerned. I am very conservative and we asked ourselves if we really wanted to try this and we talked about it quite a while and looked at it and asked what was best for our kids to put them in a situation to be successful,” he said. “If we would have played last year the way we played this year, we would have been out of the tournament already and probably would have lost five or six regular season games. This system fits these kids.”
Senior guard Ben Umbel was named to the All-Ohio first team with 15.4 ppg. All-Ohio Special Mention selection Anthony DeFelice netted 12.2 ppg this season with guard Niko Fatimus and forward Ben Dunlow tallying 13.5 and 11.4 ppg, respectively. Senior forward David Wright is good for 7.3 ppg.
“We play nine guys and I call them factors – not starters,” Grisdale explained. “We usually have a unit that we start with but we’re kind of like a hockey team where we sub every two-and-a-half or three minutes and usually it is four guys. So, we really try to create a tempo that’s fast and hopefully uncomfortable for the other team for an extended amount of time.”
Poland is hoping its new style of play will propel the Bulldogs into their first state championship game with a win over Chillicothe.
But the task won’t be easy.
Led by first team All-Ohio guard Anthony Hitchens and his 21.3 ppg, Chillicothe is the state tournament for the first time in 78 years.
The Cavaliers (23-3) finished only second to Poland in the final state poll.
“Our kids are excited. They have worked hard all season,” third-year head coach Gary Kellough said. “We’ve got two kids that were very fortunate to make all-state this week and we’re proud of them. As far as our coaching staff, we’re just as excited and we’re going to work as hard as we can to get the job done this season.”
Senior forward Ray Chambers was a second team All-Ohio selection with 15.5 ppg. Forward Seth Dawes and guards Stuart Beverly and Caleb Knights combine for nearly 24 ppg.
“(Hitchens) is the guy that gives us the juice,” Kellough said. “When he’s motivated and really playing well, we feed off of him. It doesn’t have to be as a scorer either. It could be with his quickness defensively or his vision and his passing ability. We definitely feed off of him.
“And (Caleb Knight) gives him the opportunity to get out there and run the floor and be more of a scoring threat in the open court.”
Defensively, Chillicothe is allowing 47.5 points per game.
“We’re all man-to-man. We play full court and at times we pick and chose when we want to pressure out of our man-to-man trapping,” Kellough said. “We do run zone trapping at different spots on the floor. We try to play very aggressive with our defense and we’re the type of team that is motivated at times by how well we are playing.”
And Chillicothe’s defense is going to have to be on its game against a Poland team averaging nearly 89 ppg.
“The big thing you have to worry about with Poland is defensively you’ve got to get back, take care of the perimeter and put a lot of pressure on those shooters,” said Kellough. “The big thing is just getting back in transition and making them run an offense and the way we play defense hopefully it will cause them some problems.
“They’re a team that has balanced scoring. Nobody really stands out in our mind that is going to come in and score 35 (points). They just have a great wealth of scorers and spread it around and play really well as a team.”
In addition to Hitchens, Chillicothe’s defense is a key concern for Poland.
“The Hitchens kid is one of the best guards we’ve seen all year and might be the best guard in the state. He’s exciting to watch,” Grisdale said. “He’s got a bounce in his step, he’s got a smile on his face and he is a very good competitor.
“Defensively, they concern us because of how hard they pressure the ball and how hard they get out into the passing lanes.
“This is going to be the toughest challenge that we’ve had thus far.”
Division II State Tournament Vitals
Semifinals – Thursday, March 13
10:45 a.m.: St. Paris Graham Local (26-0) vs. Toledo Libbey (23-2)
2:00 p.m.: Chillicothe (23-2) vs. Poland Seminary (25-0)
Finals – Saturday, March 15
Division II – 10:45 a.m.
Graham Local (26-0)
Location: St. Paris
Boys Enrollment: 273
Final 2007-08 Ranking: No. 5
State Appearances: 2008
Head Coach: Brook Cupps
School Rec.: 109-70 (8 yrs.)
PPG: 67.7; OPP: 47.4
F 23 Travis Crooks, 6-2, Sr., 6.3 ppg
F 34 Ethan Ward, 6-4, So., 10.9 ppg
G 24 Ben Rosenberger, 6-0, 6.9 ppg
G 21 Austin Jones, 6-2, Jr., 11.1 ppg
G 22 Josh Schuler, 6-2, Jr., 19.7 ppg
Boys Enrollment: 394
Final 2007-08 Ranking: No. 4
State Appearances: 2008, 2000, 1969, 1966, 1941, 1928
Head Coach: Leroy Bates
School Rec.: 250-113 (16 yrs.)
PPG: N/A; OPP: N/A
F 34 Julius Wells, 6-6, Sr., 11.7 ppg
F 30 Lance Jones, 6-5, Sr., 5.6 ppg
G 44 William Buford, 6-5, Sr., 22.6 ppg
G 32 Brad Sandridge, 6-3, Sr., 11.3 ppg
G 24 Tony Brown, 6-3, Sr., 8.4 ppg
Boys Enrollment: 335
Final 2007-08 Ranking: No. 2
State Appearances: 2008, 1930, 1924
Head Coach: Gary Kellough
School Rec.: 54-18 (3 yrs.)
PPG: 74.3; OPP: 47.5
F 34 Ray Chambers, 6-7, Sr., 15.5 ppg
F 32 Seth Dawes, 6-5, Jr., 8.1 ppg
G 24 Anthony Hitchens, 5-9, Sr., 21.3 ppg
G 5 Stuart Beverly, 6-1, Sr., 9.4 ppg
G 14 Caleb Knights, 6-1, Jr., 6.4 ppg
Poland Seminary (25-0)
Boys Enrollment: 337
Final 2007-08 Ranking: No. 1
State Appearances: 2008, 2007, 2002, 1972
Head Coach: Ken Grisdale
School Rec.: 248-101 (15 yrs.)
PPG: 88.8; OPP: 60.2
F 5 David White, 6-4, Sr., 7.3 ppg
F 24 Ben Donlow, 6-4, So., 11.4 ppg
G 3 Anthony DeFelice, 5-11, Sr., 12.2 ppg
G 10 Niko Fatimus, 6-0, So., 13.5 ppg
G 32 Ben Umbel, 6-3, Sr., 15.4 ppg
St. Paris Graham over Toledo Libbey
Poland over Chillicothe
Poland over St. Paris Graham