OHSAA could give Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph the Division III
boys basketball state title today. The Vikings enter the state
tournament this weekend with more trips (11) than the other three
entrants combined. VASJ is also making its third straight appearance in
Columbus. Anna, Sugarcreek Garaway and Ottawa-Glandorf round out the field.
If state titles were given for tradition and experience alone, the OHSAA could give Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph the Division III boys basketball state title today. The Vikings enter the state tournament this weekend with more trips (11) than the other three entrants combined. VASJ is also making its third straight appearance in Columbus.
The Vikings lost in the semifinals last year and were runners-up in 2006.
“I don’t really know if that (experience) is an advantage or not,” VASJ coach Dave Wojciechowski said. “Our guys have been down this road, they have been in this game before and played on that court. I think that’s great, but I don’t know if that really has any bearing on executing offense and defense. Each game is different.”
VASJ tackles Sugarcreek Garaway in one semifinal Thursday at Value City Arena, while Anna battles Ottawa-Glandorf in the other.
One thing is for sure – North College Hill won’t be adding a fourth straight state title.
Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph (21-4)
Depth, experience and talent are all working in VASJ’s favor.
“We have a good group of young guys – well maybe I shouldn’t say young,” Wojciechowski said. “We have eight seniors back and the guys have put a pretty solid effort into getting back to this point.”
The Vikings have been on the radar all season and many predicted a return trip to state. Now that they're here there’s the matter of unfinished business. VASJ has won four titles, but is looking for its first since 1995.
“Anyone getting to this level – no matter what division – has to be successful and play the game the right way,” Wojciechowski said. “You also have to have kids that buy into what is being said and more importantly buy into each other. What I think we have is a camaraderie with this group that far exceeds the first 10 (teams to go to state) we’ve had. I like where they are at mentally. How they respect each other on and off the floor is something that is very, very special to us.”
Special is another word to describe the Vikings roster, which contains two Ohio players of the year.
Senior guard Nate Barnes (5-10) was named the D-III state co-player of the year this week, while fellow senior Ashen Ward earned that recognition last season.
Barnes averages a team-high 15.6 points per game, while Ward chips in 10.9.
Ward (6-4, F) is a three-year starter and will be making his fourth start at the state tournament.
His contributions are plentiful
“He’s carried us the last few years,” Wojciechowski said. “Ever since Dave (Lighty) left he really took over in a lot of aspects. He’s the first one in to watch video, he’s the first one on the floor and he’s the last one leave. He’s a true leader. What we need done he does and that includes carrying the balls into practice. I get emotional when I talk about (Ashen) and he’s had one heck of a career. I would be proud to call him a son and if you met him you’d probably say the same thing.”
Rounding out the VASJ starters are a trio of seniors: 6-8 forward Dominick Haynes, 6-7 center Klein Harper and 5-8 guard Brian Jenkins. Harper, who Wojciechowski called an “athletic warrior,” started last year’s state semifinal loss and had seven points and 11 rebounds. He and Haynes, who Wojciechowski described as a “big horse,” create a formidable duo in the paint.
“We like our big guys, that’s for sure,” Wojciechowski said. “Both Domonick and Klein have been doing a great job for us on the boards. That’s one of our keys every night – to win the war on the boards.”
Against Garaway, defense out front will be another key, especially stopping standout point guard Tyler Gerber. Gerber shared co-player of the year honors with Barnes and averages 20 ppg.
“He’s a pretty good point guard,” Wojciechowski said. “Everything goes through him and they go by what he does. I think they want him to have the ball most of the time. He can shoot it and he’s pretty crafty. He looks like a scrappy, tough little kid which I admire quite a bit.”
Admiration is something the VASJ program has earned over the years. Now the Vikings would like to earn another state title. Championship No. 5 would move VASJ into a second place tie with Columbus East for the most titles ever. Middletown leads with seven.
“(This team) has an understanding of what their mission is this year and what they want to accomplish,” Wojciechowski said. “I don’t think they are going to let a lot of things get in their way and they are going to do whatever they can to be successful. They are going to run through walls for each other.”
Sugarcreek Garaway (22-3)
The Pirates are going to try to accomplish what the girls program couldn’t last week – win a state title. Garaway’s girls fell in the state final to Versailles, while the boys are looking to win their first championship in the program’s second trip to state.
The Pirates lost a D-III semifinal in 2003 to Cincinnati Reading.
Garaway definitely has its hands full facing VASJ.
“They do create some mismatches, but we’re just going to have to come out and try to execute our game plan the best we can,” Garaway head coach Dave Shutt said. “First and foremost we don’t want intimidation to be a big factor. I’m sure their experience is a little bit of an advantage. But when it’s all said and done the rims are 10-feet tall and all that stuff.”
Shutt, who was an assistant for the 2003 team, feels his team is prepared thanks in part to a schedule that included Malvern, Berlin Hiland and Canton Timken, a Division I regional finalist the Pirates faced at North Canton Hoover’s Pizza Oven Classic in January.
There’s also the matter of having Gerber on the team.
The D-III co-player of the year, Gerber is a 4-year letter winner that carries solid credentials and a 3.9 GPA.
“He’s very versatile and heady,” Shutt said. “The thing that people often overlook is how much better he makes the kids around him. It’s almost like having an assistant coach on the floor. He does a lot for us and without him there’s no doubt we’re not here.”
Another player who has come up big for the Pirates is freshman Paul Honigford. One of the state’s top players in the Class of 2011, Honigford averages 10.3 ppg. His contributions against VASJ’s inside heavyweights will be crucial.
“He has really stepped up in the tournament,” Shutt said. “He’s not a freshman anymore. He has gotten a lot of experience. He’s seen some big kids before and he’s definitely going to have a challenge but he’s excited. Just his presence and size alone can alter some shots from their guards. I’m not sure about their posts. He’s going to have to step up there.”
The Titans didn’t start the season like state title contenders, but here they are.
“I guess (this trip) was little unexpected with what he had back,” O-G head coach Josh Leslie said. “We play a lot of juniors and a lot of guys. We stubbed our toe kind of early and started off 7-4, but since that time we’ve won 14 of 15 games. We play a lot of guys and keep bringing waves of people at you. We don’t really have one true star. We have a lot of guys who do a lot of things and are capable of stepping up on any given night. We’re a solid team.”
That rough start has led to a solid finish.
O-G is making its fifth appearance at state and first since 2004 when it won its lone title in D-II.
Leslie said the turning point came after a loss to Western Buckeye League foe Elida.
“We got beat at home by Elida who ended up being 7-14,” Leslie said. “We lost to them by one and we weren’t playing very well at that point. We had played selfish through some stretches. After that we had some heart to heart talks and our practice got ratcheted up a bit you could say. After that we started getting after teams more. We finally started to realize it was about what we did together and it didn’t matter who scored how many points. That made things a lot better and we continued to get better. I think we’re playing our best ball right now.”
O-G has not lost to a D-III team this year, and hopes that trend continues. The Titans also hope to continue to overwhelm their opponents. O-G goes 10 deep.
“That’s what we do,” Leslie said. “Since we’ve gotten in game shape we’re going to play 10 guys every quarter and keep guys coming. We have five starters, but we also have guys that get about the same amount of time. They know their job is to go in and play as hard and as long as they can. It’s tough on some teams because we’ve got so many guys that are similar. We don’t really get caught up in bad match ups very often because our guys are athletic, can run the floor and play solid defense.”
The Titans face a similar team in Anna. Consider the game a good old-fashioned match up between two of the state’s top athletic conferences – the Western Buckeye League versus the Shelby County League.
“They may not do as much full court type stuff as we do, but they’re as good a team as we’ve seen all year,” Leslie said. “We realize we’re going to have to play well to be right there with them. They’re going to throw a lot of guys at us and we’re going to throw a lot of guys at them.”
Senior forward Justin Schomaeker leads the O-G attack (17.2 ppg) and is the only Titan to average double-figures. Junior guard Taylor Kuhlman (9.3 ppg) and junior forward Colton Everett (8.4 ppg) are the team’s second and third leading scorers.
Expect the Titans to bring a lot of fans as well. A sports-crazy community, O-G especially loves its basketball. Tuesday there were fans in line before noon at the school for tickets that didn’t go on sale until 7 p.m. There are over 400 names on the waiting list for season tickets.
“This place is a true basketball heaven for a guy like me,” Leslie said. “The support is phenomenal. The crowd we had at Bowling Green was unbelievable. Anytime you can sellout that place and get it going its impressive.
“You realize as a coach that’s why you make the move. This is a big time basketball community. There is a certain expectation level but as a coach that’s what you want. You want people to care and expect good things. It’s much better than the alternative.”
Rockets head coach Matt Meyer is hoping to even his career record against O-G’s Leslie this weekend. Meyer and Anna lost to Leslie and Springfield Catholic Central in a D-IV regional final in 1997.
“I brought that up earlier,” Meyer said. “I think we were up seven at half and they clamped us in the second half and beat us to go to state. That’s a little bit of a funny side note.”
There’s nothing funny about the way Anna has performed this year. At least not for the opposition.
The Rockets enter the state tournament ranked No. 2 in the state and are riding a 22-game win streak. Anna’s only loss was to New Knoxville all the way back on Dec. 1.
“That’s when I realized we were young,” Meyer said. “The night before that, (New Knoxville) opened the season at Upper Scioto Valley and they were ahead 49-1 at halftime so we literally had no scouting report. That same night we played at Russia and were down 10 in the third quarter and ended up winning by double-digits. We expended a lot of energy that night. That next night we came back and started two sophomore guards against the best defense we’ve seen and we were just shell-shocked that first quarter. That’s when we realized ‘OK, we’re young and it’s going to take a few games to get some time and experience.’
“The other thing though was the resiliency of this group. Those kids were devastated by the loss. They used that as a great lesson and give them credit. They haven’t lost since.”
Since that loss Anna has continually flexed its depth. The Rockets go nine deep and spread the wealth. They also play at a fast pace. The Rockets 67.8 ppg average is the highest output off all D-III semifinalists.
“I think that’s the fun way to play,” Meyer said. “The kids enjoy it. We’ll take the transition game if its there, but if its not we need to execute in the half court.
“And we really don’t have any what you would consider stars. We have four guys right around double-figures and another two between 6 and 8 points per game. We have a group of nine players who share the ball and are very unselfish. No one is out there to grab stardom and that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Senior guard Joel Naseman averages a team-high 12.3 ppg, while classmate Kreg Elsass chips in 10.1. Elsass will also play in his 95th varsity game Friday.
Sophomore guards Derek Billing (11.4 ppg) and Wesley Hunsucker (9.4) join junior forward Eric Niekamp (7.8) in the starting line up.
Anna and O-G play similar styles so Meyer is well aware of what needs to be done.
“They are just going to continue to pressure,” Meyer said. “If we break (the pressure) once we can’t stop and celebrate because they are not going to stop. It’s going to be 32 minutes or more of them pressuring the basketball. We’re going to have to take care of the ball and attack when the opportunity presents itself. Secondly, were going to have to keep them of the glass. Lastly, we have to play solid defense and keep them in front. We’re going to have to be very fundamentally sound.”
Unlike O-G, whose schedule was littered with D-I and II schools, Anna has honed its craft in the rural Shelby County League and against some of the state’s top small school competition – mainly the Midwest Athletic Conference.
“I can’t say enough about the SCL but also our non-league schedule,” Meyer said. “First of all these kids play in the MAC for football. They are playing Marion Local, St. Henry, Delphos St. Johns and Coldwater in football and then they’re coming into basketball where we play every league team twice. They’re playing Russia twice and Houston twice and then we play a lot of the MAC schools. We feel like there have been years where we’ve struggled and maybe we ought to get rid of some of these schools to pick up some wins, but we’ve kept a strong schedule.
“There are some Friday and Saturday nights where it’s a bear where you’re playing at Russia and then at New Knoxville. But you do it with the dream in mind that it pays off one Friday and Saturday in March and that’s what we’re hoping.”
Anna becomes the fifth SCL school to make the state tournament and first since Russia finished runner-up in 2002. The Rockets hope to become the third team to claim a title joining Fort Loramie (1993, 1987) and Jackson Center (1985).
“I’m from Jackson Center and obviously coach (Jerry) Harmon is a person I’ve spoken to,” Meyer said. “The big thing the people at JC told us is to have everything planned out. Make sure you have your dinner reservations set and go over there to win it. Don’t go over there and be happy because it’s your first time (and we’ve listened).
“We’re not just here to play at the Schott and eat in nice restaurants. We’re here to win it.”
Villa Angela-St. Joseph (21-4)
Boys Enrollment: 174
Final ‘08 Ranking: 9th
State Appearances: 2008, 2007, 2006, 1997,
1995, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1989, 1987, 1979
Head Coach: David Wojciechowski
School Rec.: 156-62 (9 yrs.)
PPG: 66.0; OPP: N/A
F 20 Ashen Ward, 6-4, Sr., 10.9 ppg
F 55 Dominick Haynes, 6-8, Sr., 5.3 ppg
C 45 Klein Harper, 6-7, Sr., 7.0 ppg
G 3 Brian Jenkins, 5-8, Sr., 7.0 ppg
G 11 Nate Barnes, 5-10, Sr., 15.6 ppg
Boys Enrollment: 145
Final ‘08 Ranking: 3rd (tie)
State Appearances: 2008, 2003
Head Coach: Dave Shutt
School Rec.: 79-16 (4 yrs.)
PPG: 61.5; OPP: 42.9
F 32 David Gerber, 6-3, Jr., 9.0 ppg
C 40 Paul Honigford, 6-8, Fr., 10.3 ppg
G 15 Tyler Gerber, 5-10, Sr., 19.9 ppg
G 33 Chase Stingel, 5-10, Sr., 10.9 ppg
G 4 Devin Schie, 5-11, Jr., 4.2 ppg
Boys Enrollment: 226
Final ‘08 Ranking: 12th (tie)
State Appearances: 2008, 2004, 1996,
Head Coach: Josh Leslie
School Rec.: 52-18 (3 yrs.)
PPG: 63.7; OPP: 53.1
F 22 Luke Bellman, 6-1, Sr., 5.3 ppg
F 3 Colton Everett, 6-4, Jr., 8.4 ppg
F 32 Justin Schomaeker, 6-1, Sr., 17.2 ppg
G 4 Taylor Pothast, 6-0, Sr., 3.4 ppg
G 10 Taylor Kuhlman, 6-0, Jr., 9.3 ppg
Boys Enrollment: 141
Final ‘08 Ranking: 2nd
State Appearances: 2008
Head Coach: Matt Meyer
School Rec.: 123-66 (8 yrs.)
PPG: 63.7; OPP: 53.1
F 4 Kreg Elsass, 6-3, Sr., 10.1 ppg
F 42 Eric Niekamp, 6-4, Jr., 7.8 ppg
G 2 Joel Naseman, 6-0, Sr., 12.3 ppg
G 14 Derek Billing, 6-0, So., 11.4 ppg
G 12 Wesley Hunsucker, 6-2, So., 9.4 ppg
Friday, March 14 – Championship Semifinals
10:45 a.m. – Division III Game #1
Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph (21-4) vs. Sugarcreek Garaway (23-3)
2:00 p.m. – Division III Game #2
Ottawa-Glandorf (21-5) vs. Anna (25-1)
VASJ over Garaway
Anna over Ottawa-Glandorf
VASJ over Anna