Welcome to the 92nd annual Ohio Boys Basketball State Tournament, the March Madness of high school hoops. I'm looking forward to another great three days of watching hopefully 12 great games.
Every year there is a Cinderella story, and this year it has already surfaced on the first day of play. St. Thomas Aquinas is really about the only local team present this year in Columbus. For some reason, I don't consider St. Vincent-St. Mary as a local team when it comes to our area, especially when most of the players are not even from Ohio, let alone Akron.
The afternoon games of Thursday began with St. Thomas meeting Harvest Prep, a team that reached the Final Four last season and came into the day with a 26-1 record. The Knights got off the bus with a 17-11 record and start but one player over 6-foot. In fact they start a pair of 5-9 guards and a 5-6 kid that looks like he should be in middle school.
I'm sure you can now guess what happened on the floor of Value City Arena. Score a 54-41 victory of the little guys, and the team from Stark County will be in the state championship game on Saturday at 1:30 against the winner of the final Thursday game between once beaten Tri-Village and undefeated Convoy Crestview.
Second-year St. Thomas coach Matt Hackenberg, who is only 28 years old, was almost out of breath while making an opening statement at the postgame press conference. He was so excited about the game he was taking cell phone pictures of his players while they were addressing the press.
Hackenberg started the interview by telling of a quick story about how the team went to a local restaurant on Wednesday and the waitress asked if they were a swim team.
"I think that kind of says a little about this team," said Hackenberg.
"We don't look like a team, but we get the necessary things done to win," he added. "We take care of the basketball, especially down the stretch in the fourth quarter."
Forward Anthony Moeglin was the quarterback for the Knights football team, and one of the most talkative players ever interviewed in my many years attending these games. The 6-0 junior played big, scoring 11 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, and was still in the hallway talking to reporters when the rest of the team was about to board their bus.
"We came down here and nobody had any idea who we were," said Moeglin. "I think we looked like a deer in the headlights before the game, but our coach told us we had nothing to lose and just go out and play as hard as we could. That's what we did."
I think Harvest Prep now realizes the Knights are not a swim team, but a pretty good basketball team.
NORWALK IS SOLID
The opener of the tournament this year was Division II. Norwalk (27-1) made its first appearance in school history against Dayton Thurgood Marshall (22-5), which has been here four previous times and finished runner-up at each trip.
Norwalk's only setback of the season was a two-point overtime loss to Ontario for the league championship. Prior to that loss, the Truckers had won 57 regular season games over a three-year span. They have now started another run that numbers 13 in a row, but the Truckers needed an overtime win over Vermilion and a one-point victory over Lima Bath to survive the Bowling Green Regional.
Norwalk took an early lead, but then watched the Cougars go on a 13-4 run to open the second quarter for a 27-21 advantage. The Truckers recovered and locked the score at 30-30 by halftime.
Norwalk 6-foot-5 senior forward Jeff Thomas took command in the third quarter, pumping in 12 points to lead the Truckers to a 52-47 lead going into the fourth quarter and a 72-64 semifinal win that vaults them into Saturday's title game.
Thomas has committed to play at Georgia State, while point guard Ben Haraway will play at Malone. Haraway finishes his career with over 1,000 points and 500 assists.
Head coach Steve Gray brought the pair of stars to the postgame press conference following the contest, and just could not stop praising each for their dedication to the season.
"This team has a 3.3 GPA, and they are just so much fun to coach," said Gray. "If you watch us warming up we are not very impressive. We start one player over 6-2 and have been the smaller team probably 90 percent of the time. We do a lot of other things pretty well. For the year we are averaging only eight turnovers a game and shoot over 50 percent from the floor.
"Thurgood Marshall is really a good team, but we expected to win," continued Gray. "You win with players, and these kids are Norwalk kids, four-year lettermen that do things I cannot teach."
Some of the pressroom buzz this year once again is about competitive balance, which was recently fueled by Poland Seminary coach Ken Grisdale after his team lost to St. Vincent-St. Mary in the regionals. Grisdale gave the Beacon Journel almost a full page of bashing the Irish, criticizing recruiting by the Akron school and the fact that very few of the Irish players are from Akron or even Ohio.
The second game on Thursday saw the Irish attempting to get even with Columbus Bishop Watterson, which beat St. V last year in the state finals at the buzzer. After leading early the Irish went cold in the second quarter as Watterson built a 30-21 lead at intermission. The Eagles extended that lead to 13 points in the third quarter and went on to capture a 56-51 win.
Watterson will be attempting to win two in a row when it meets Norwalk at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.