The Basketball Cats are heading back to Dayton as they will take on the Centerville Elks in the State Semifinal on Saturday, March 19. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have won back-to-back Regional Championships as they continue to dance in March. The season was far from smooth for the Wildcats as they entered the OHSAA Playoffs with an 11-11 record, four of the losses coming down to the final possession. The Cats head into this weekend competing for the program's second State Championship.
"It's a season of growth and a lot of patience. We came into this season with many expectations," explains Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce. "Guys were coming into new roles with the team, there has been a lot of growth from November to now and I think we're seeing that."
The expectations were high for the Cats as they were coming off their first Final Four appearance in 20 years, with plenty of returning players. The Wildcats struggled in their first games of the season, including a 64-60 overtime loss to Walsh Jesuit. This season the Wildcats also experienced a three-game losing streak twice. Despite struggling in the regular season, the Cats have had success in the playoffs.
"I think the tough games prepared us for what has happened in the playoffs," says sophomore guard Ace Buckner. "In the late stretches in close games, we can pull out wins."
The season ended bitterly for the Wildcats as they lost in overtime to the Green Bulldogs. A game where the Wildcats had a three-point lead with under 10 seconds to play and Green forced OT and came away with a victory. The Cats struggled on their home floor inside Sullivan Gym in the regular season as they would go 4-5.
"There were many tough losses, but I think it's a testament to our guys still believing that we can still accomplish our goals if we keep working at it," explains coach Joyce. "That's the beauty of the regular season; even if you lose, there is another game, and it's all in preparation for the tournament, the guys never put their heads down and now we're in the Final Four."
"We had an okay season; we had a .500 record which isn't what we expected," says senior captain Jonathan Effertz. "We had highs and lows, which helped us throughout the playoffs."
The Cats have taken their experiences in the regular season and translated them into one memorable playoff run. "The weekend where we played St. Edward on Friday and Shaker Heights on Saturday is when I saw that our guys started gaining confidence," coach Joyce says. "We lost to St. Edward, but I thought there were some positives to take away from that game but to bounce back and beat Shaker the next night without Jonathan Effertz started to show our identity."
"The first round of the playoffs, we saw everyone's mentality switch and everyone was locked in," says Effertz. "The JV kids came up and brought great energy and you can tell we were hungry to get back to where we were last year."
During the playoff run, the sophomore trio of CJ Little, Carter Jackson and Buckner have been vital contributors for the Cats being back in the Final Four. Little is averaging 5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists during the playoffs and has been the definition of a facilitator for the Wildcats. Buckner scored 17 points in the Regional Final against Lima Senior and Jackson scored a career-high 24 points in the District Final vs. Brunswick.
"Those three affect the game in different ways," coach Joyce explains. "CJ is a great distributor of the basketball, Ace can score anywhere on the floor and Carter is a great scorer and rebounder. You're seeing guys grow before your eyes and learning the game."
"I have chemistry with both Carter and Ace, I have been playing with Carter for a few years and we understand each other's game and I played with Ace in AAU," explains sophomore guard CJ Little. "We are all guards and strive together to be successful."
With the Wildcats returning to the State Semifinal, they have been on this stage before, with plenty of experience. This year will feature more fans in the stands at UD Arena as in the 2020-21 season; attendance was limited. "I'm more confident; last year, I was nervous as a freshman, but I'm eager to win since I've been here before," says Little. "I want this game because we are counted out and I think we can win."
"We have been on this stage before; after the win against Lima Senior, the locker room was hungry for more. We were excited to be going back to Dayton, but we are not satisfied," says coach Joyce. "Credit to the players and staff, there were some dark moments this season where we came up short, but we knew the ball eventually would bounce our way."
Effertz will be a focal point on Saturday for the Wildcats. The senior guard is averaging 11 points per game this season while shooting the three-ball at a 47% clip. "I think it helps the coaches and us; we know what worked and didn't from last season," says Effertz. "What makes it even better is the crowd will be bigger and we're excited for this week."
On Saturday night, the Wildcats take on the defending 2021 OHSAA Division I State Champions in the Centerville Elks. The Elks are 28-0 heading into the State Semifinal and have won 44 straight games dating back to last season. In ESPN's SCNext Top 25 ranking, Centerville is ranked the 14th best high school team in the country. They are led by junior guard and Indiana University commit Gabe Cupps.
"You don't win 44 games as a fluke; I feel like we have been on this collision course to meet them, though, we had a chance to play them in the State Championship last season," says coach Joyce. "In order to win a championship, you have to beat the best, they are going to test our defensive principles and there is not much room for error. We look forward to the challenge."
Little will be starting in his second straight Final Four at point guard and knows the challenge that Centerville brings. "We know we are the underdog in this game," Little says. "We have a chip on our shoulder; we have faith in winning this game."
"We have to do the little things right, but having fun with it is the most important part," explains Effertz. "It's just another game and we have to be ourselves; I think everything else will take care of itself."
The ball is scheduled to tip at 8:30 p.m. from the University of Dayton Arena. The winner will take on the winner of the Pickerington Central/St. Edward game in the Division I State Championship on Sunday. The SIBN will have audio-only coverage and Spectrum will have video coverage. The Cats are seeking the program's second State Championship.
- Joe Mertens '15