St. John's Jesuit will play for a Division I regional boys basketball championship for the fourth time in five years tomorrow night, and in none of those tournament runs were the Titans thought less likely to get there than now.
With a win over Strongsville (20-4), St. John's (20-5) can make its third state semifinal appearance in four seasons. Tipoff at Savage Hall is set for 7:30 p.m.
In 2002, led by John Floyd, the Titans ended the regular season 20-0 and ranked No. 1. But they lost to Lakewood St. Edward on a last-second 3-pointer in the regional final to finish 25-1.
The next two seasons - led by the talented trio of Brian Roberts, B.J. Raymond and Zach Hillesland - the Titans reached the state final four.
They lost to Columbus Brookhaven in the 2003 state semifinals, then beat Brookhaven in the 2004 semis before losing to Hamilton in the state final.
Raymond and Hillesland were back last season, but a fifth-ranked Titan squad lost to Scott in the district final.
This season, St. John's was picked to finish third in the City League behind Scott and St. Francis de Sales, and both teams beat the Titans on the last two Fridays of league play. But St. John's bounced back.
"We knew this season was going to be fun, coming out without any superstars or anything," said 6-7 senior forward Andrew Taylor, a part-time starter as a sophomore and a full-timer the past two seasons. "We knew if we came together as a team and worked hard, we could accomplish a lot."
The Titans edged St. Francis in the CL playoff semis, but lost in double-overtime to Scott in the CL final.
That defeat seems to have sparked what has been a strong Titan tourney run. St. John's ousted sixth-ranked St. Francis (18-3) in the district semis, then played its best game of the season in a victory over fifth-ranked Scott (21-2).
"The final two City League games were very difficult," Heintschel said, "and I've always felt that the City League championship format is a great opportunity for a team to play under pressure situations with something at stake just before the tournament.
"These guys felt the sting of defeat, and I don't think they liked it. We didn't do anything different as a coaching staff. We just hammer away at them all the time with the same messages. It's just starting to connect a little better, and right now this a very confident team."
Heintschel did do one thing differently.
"I really chewed them out after the City championship game," he said. "I don't usually do that, especially after a double-overtime loss where you're disappointed. I don't think we could define them, but I think we had some issues.
"I said, 'Maybe you guys need to meet,' and I stormed out. I don't know what they talked about, or if that was significant. But that disappointment kind of spurred them."
What transpired in that players-only meeting?
"We just talked about how we needed to get more competitive in practice," said 6-3 all-district senior guard Jonathan Dunn. "The City championship game was very competitive and very intense, so we just talked about how we needed to [recreate that] in practice so we could prepare."
The Titans made the regional final by toppling second-ranked Mansfield Senior (22-2) 74-65 in Wednesday's semifinal.
Dunn leads the Titans in scoring at 18.9 points per game, Taylor averages 13.1 points and 7.1 rebounds and junior guard Joe Jakubowski adds 10.5 points. DeAndre Ware and Mike Floyd round out the starting five.
Behind 27 points from 6-4 all-district forward Kyle Brown, Strongsville's Mustangs rallied to beat Lakewood St. Edward in a regional semifinal Wednesday in Canton. This is the furthest tournament advancement in school history for the Mustangs.
Brown, Strongsville's career scoring leader, averaged 21.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during the regular season for the Pioneer Conference champions.
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