An unparalleled work ethic and a pure passion to leave it all on the table from six seniors has the Toledo Christian boys basketball team primed to make a deep tournament run.
The Eagles (19-2) are ranked ninth in the Division IV state poll. The Eagles clinched at least a share of the Toledo Area Athletic Conference title with a win over Danbury last Friday to move to 12-1.
“They've put in a lot of time and effort,” TC coach Dave McWhinnie said. “They are dedicated to becoming a great basketball team.”
It started last spring during open gym with nearly 100 percent attendance every day. That commitment carried over to the fall during morning shooting sessions and afternoon workouts.
“They set their own personal goals and have executed better than any other group,” McWhinnie said.
Senior guard Eric Cellier, who leads the TAAC in scoring with 21.7 points per game, said the team is motivated by a sense of urgency.
“From the end of last season, the seniors' goal has been to make it to state and we've worked as hard as we can,” Cellier said.
After the team lost in the regional semifinals as sophomores, Cellier said the motivation has been to get back.
“We just have to work as hard as we can so have no regrets — win or lose — to know we have done all we can,”said Cellier, who also averages 4.5 rebounds per game.
“We play together all the time,” he said. “It's just a passion for the game.”
McWhinnie said Cellier brings leadership.
“He is constantly shooting. He spends hours and hours at it,” McWhinnie said.
Fellow seniors Josh Winzeler, Ben Ivan, Melvin Thomas, and Dominique Pittman also are playing with determination. Winzeler, Pittman, and Ivan are all second-year starters, while Thomas transferred from St. John's.
Winzeler ranks second on the team in scoring at 10.1. Ivan leads the team in rebounding (5.9). Thomas averages 9.4 points, while Pittman averages 8.0.
“There is a maturity and I can sense a different intensity in practice,” McWhinnie said. “I think it plays a part. But they have to go out and earn what they get in the tournament.”
Cellier has passed 1,000th career points. It was one of his goals to match the feat of his sister Emily, who also achieved it.
“That means a lot,” Cellier said. “I always thought it would be cool to be up there with her. It's an honor.”
Toledo Christian can clinch an outright TAAC title Friday with a win at Northwood.
McWhinnie, in his 12th season, has a career record of 191-86. He led the Eagles to four straight TAAC titles from 2006-09. They won it outright in 2006 and 2007.
The team's first loss this year came in the home opener (44-41 to Lake) and its only league setback came on the road to Ottawa Hills (49-47) on Feb. 8.
The Eagles have nine players that see significant playing time. That allows McWhinnie to employ a full-court press for the entire game.
“We press and wear people out,” McWhinnie said. “We run people into the ground, so in the fourth quarter they can't make shots. Their legs go out. Our practices are grueling.”
Last season, the Eagles lost in the district final to TAAC champion Maumee Valley. In 2011, TC won a district title and reached the regional final in 2009.
“These kids all played significant roles on the district title team a few years ago and last year,” McWhinnie said. “They've played in a lot of big games. And they feel comfortable handling the ball in the last minute of the game..”
The TAAC has sent a team to at least the district final for eight straight seasons.
“This league is deep,” McWhinnie said. “You have to bring your game every night. Whoever gets through sectionals from out league should have a great shot at regionals.”
The TC girls team also won a TAAC title. It's the first time since 1992 that both teams won league championships in the same year.
“It is neat because you don't see it a lot where both programs are on top,” McWhinnie said. “The girls have had a great year. They support us and we support them. It's a dynamic that is special.”
“The girls team is awesome,” he said. “We hope they can make a tournament run with us.”