First place — and likely the Three Rivers Athletic Conference boys basketball championship — will be on the line Friday night when Central Catholic travels to St. John’s Jesuit.
After its win Tuesday over Fremont Ross, Central comes in at 15-2 overall and 10-1 in TRAC play, while the host Titans enter at 15-5, 11-1.
Making Friday’s game especially crucial for the Titans was their 63-57 conference loss at preseason TRAC title favorite Findlay last Friday.
That defeat dropped the Titans into a virtual tie with Central instead of maintaining a one-game lead.
“This place will be packed, and both schools will be represented well by their crowds,” St. John’s coach Ed Heintschel said. “It will be important to make sure you come out with emotion, but make sure it’s an emotional level at which you can function.
“We need to make sure we’re excited about playing, but not so much so that we’re wound too tight.”
St. John’s closes its regular-season schedule with a TRAC contest Feb. 21 at Fremont Ross (9-9, 4-8).
“We’re going to have to go over there, move the ball, play sound defense, and dig in because they’re going to be awfully tough at home,” Central coach Jim Welling said. “We’re tied for first and I would imagine, being senior night for them, they’re going to want to bring their ‘A’ game. I hope our kids can match that level of intensity.”
The Irish will have two TRAC games remaining after Friday’s showdown — Sunday against Lima Senior (7-10, 4-7), and Feb. 21 against Findlay (15-4, 9-3), both at home. If Central does defeat the Titans, the Irish could lose one of these final two TRAC games and still secure a title share.
In this season’s first Titans-Irish matchup at Central, St. John’s took a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter only to be outscored 18-6 in that period, forcing overtime.
The Titans — behind 22 points from senior guard Anthony Glover, Jr., and 13 points and 10 rebounds from 6-foot-9 senior forward Parker Ernsthausen — ultimately prevailed 62-59.
How close was it?
The Titans shot 60 percent (18 for 30) from the field in that game, outrebounded Central 30-16, and was 23 for 33 at the foul line, but still had to squeak out the victory. The Irish, despite going just 22 of 52 (42 percent) from the field, had a chance to win at the end of regulation and to force a second overtime.
Central senior starter Tom Vetter intercepted a late Titans pass, then quickly launched a shot from beyond half court that rimmed out at the regulation buzzer.
Irish senior guard DeShone Kizer, who had 29 points in that game, rimmed out a potential game-tying 3-pointer with one second left in OT.
Both teams have been tested in the last five weeks, and each has gotten consistently better. The question will be: Who has improved the most?
Senior leadership figures to be crucial, and both coaches are confident in their seniors.
The 6-1 Glover averages 17.7 points, and 3.0 assists per game.
“I’m just going to treat it as any other game,” Glover said. “Continue with my pregame rituals, come out hard, and try to get a ‘W.’
“I don’t really have any concerns other than we have to learn how to close the door on teams. When we have leads, we need to learn how to continue to build on those leads. We can’t get satisfied.”
Ernsthausen contributes 13.0 points and 8.4 rebounds.
“Our keys will be limiting them to one shot and making sure that no one player on their team gets too hot on offense,” Ernsthausen said. “At our end, we just need to execute and play team basketball.”
The third senior starter is 6-4 forward Trevor Walsh (3.3 points, 4.4 rebounds). Rounding out the St. John’s lineup are 6-3 junior wing Kaleb Vaughn (6.6 points), and 6-0 sophomore guard Gabe Kynard (8.4 points).
Kizer, a starter since Central’s 2011 state-semifinal run, is averaging 12.0 points and 5.3 assists for the Irish.
“The younger guys really got to experience a big game at home [against St. John’s], and that really helped us out,” Kizer said. “With that game under our belt, we’ll have more experience for this game.
“Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes in that first game and come out in the first quarter and give them a battle instead of laying down and having to try to fight back in the second half.”
Nate Harris, a 6-6 senior center who was also on the roster during the 2011 state run, contributes 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“We need to value our possessions and take our time,” Harris said. “Last time we rushed a little bit and made mistakes.
“St. John’s is a very disciplined team. They’re good. We’ll just have to match up to what they give us and see what happens.”
Vetter, a 6-3 forward, adds 6.0 points. Completing Central’s lineup are 5-11 junior guard Marcus Winters (12.6 points) and 6-0 junior guard Jermiah Braswell (10.1 points).
Central is outscoring opponents 65.5 to 45.1 per game, St. John’s 62.4 to 51.2.
The opposing coaches share elite status as two of the most accomplished in their profession in Ohio history.
Heintschel carries a 624-195 (.762) career record late in his 35th season guiding the Titans, ranking him No. 10 all-time among Ohio boys coaches. Heintschel — who has led the Titans to three Division I state final appearances plus three other trips to the state semifinals — is No. 4 in wins among active coaches in the state and needs one win to climb into a tie for ninth on the all-time list.
“The first game we had a nice comfortable lead going into the fourth quarter, and they didn’t go away,” Heintschel said. “We knew that would be the case. You have to figure it’s going to be a dogfight.”
This is only the seventh season as a high school coach for Welling, who was 550-127 in 20 years at Owens Community College. Welling was 4-17 at Lake in 2007-08 and is 105-29 (.784) in his sixth season at Central. He led the Irish to the 2011 Division I state semifinals.
“This is it,” Welling said. “This is February. There are no possessions off at either end of the floor, and you’ve got to play your best basketball.
“At the end of the day, win or lose, that’s what you want your kids to do. Give great effort. If you do and still don’t win, so be it.”