Over the last 10 years, a rivalry has developed on the City League basketball scene where the championship has most often gone through either St. John's Jesuit or Libbey.
Since 1996, only once has the CL title game not included one or the other.
Tonight at 7:30 at Savage Hall, for the third straight season, they will battle each other for the crown. The fifth-ranked Titans (16-3) of 26th-year coach Ed Heintschel will meet 13th-year Libbey coach Leroy Bates' Cowboys (14-5).
St. John's advanced to the final with a 70-51 win over Scott in Tuesday's semifinals, and Libbey made it by topping St. Francis de Sales 67-62 at Savage Hall.
Heintschel, whose first City League championship came in 1981, is looking for his 11th league title. His Titans are 10-3 in CL finals, including wins of 65-40 over Libbey in 2003 and 50-42 last year.
Bates, coaching in his sixth CL final, won his only title when his top-ranked, 25-1 state-semifinal team of 2000 outlasted Scott 73-64 in overtime.
Since that 1999-2000 season, St. John's vs. Libbey has often been the league's premier matchup, with the Titans holding a 7-5 edge in wins.
"This is one of the real healthy rivalries we have in the City League, and Leroy's got a real nice program," said Heintschel (457-143 career). "It has made for some real memorable games for both teams."
St. John's veteran senior duo of 6-6 Xavier University-bound B.J. Raymond (20.3 points) and 6-7 Notre Dame-bound Zach Hillesland (15.1) are bidding for their fourth CL titles. To get No. 4, they must beat a promising young Libbey team led by 6-6 sophomore Nate Miles (19.3).
The drama may center around whether or not St. John's veteran group can use its big-game experience to offset Libbey's balanced and burgeoning talent. It is a team that can score in decisive waves, or hit lulls that frustrate Bates.
"When you have a group of talented players, sometimes they have a tendency to overlook an opponent," said Bates, who is 193-98 at Libbey. "Sometimes they feel they're untouchable. What they don't understand is that the other teams they're playing want to win just as much as they do.
"You have to be tenacious and focused and have that killer instinct to make a good tournament run. They think they can turn it on and off when they're ready, and it just doesn't work that way. But these guys know St. John's is three-time defending champion and it's not an easy task. I'm confident that they'll come out with a more focused approach."
Raymond and Hillesland were each late-season varsity subs on the 2002 St. John's CL championship team which went 25-1 and won a state poll title before losing in the regional finals. The duo helped lead St. John's to the state semifinals in 2003 and to the D-I state final last year.
As for Libbey, Bates appears certain to have the City League's next powerhouse and state-title contender. Beyond Miles, the deep Cowboys tout the talents of 6-4 freshman forward William Buford (13.4 points), 6-0 junior guard Chris Poellnitz (11.9) and 6-2 sophomore forward Phillip Pearson (10.0).
"They have a lot of people who can score, so you just can't focus on trying to stop one guy," Heintschel said. "It's going to take a team effort to defend all of their options."
Is Libbey the CL's next powerhouse team?
"Oh yeah," said Heintschel. "They are scary. But we can talk about that next year, I hope."
With Raymond, Hillesland and fellow returning senior starter Ted Heintschel gone after this season, St. John's is focusing on the now. Helping the Titans' cause are junior starters Mike Floyd, a 5-10 guard, and Andrew Taylor, a 6-6 forward. Junior Jonathan Dunn and sophomore Joe Jakubowski are the top subs.
"The way St. John's played [against Scott], it's going to be a tough battle for us," Bates said. "We're going to have to come out and play four [good] quarters of basketball. If we don't, it's going to be a long night."
In their league meeting on Dec. 19 at Savage Hall, St. John's saw a 16-point lead melt away against Libbey, which had three shots at a victory in the closing seconds all rim out in a 66-65 loss. The Cowboys' five losses have come by a combined total of 10 points.
"We always know, when we play Libbey, we're in for a tough game," Heintschel said. "They always bring their best game at us. It was that way back in December, and I'm sure it'll be that way in this game.
"I wasn't shocked by the last game because there's no quit in them. Our play with the lead was very disappointing, especially having a veteran team, and they certainly could have won."
Bates says the keys for his team are avoiding scoring lulls, not relying on the jump shot, and rebounding.
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