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Published: Wednesday, 3/12/2008

Mat power in Libbey's way as Cowboys face St. Paris Graham

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Bates Bates
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When he was attending Scott High School in the mid 1960s, Libbey basketball coach Leroy Bates did not make the Bulldog basketball team. So he became a wrestler.

Thus it is somewhat ironic that the next barrier on the state basketball tournament trail for Bates' fourth-ranked Cowboys (23-2) is a school that has become famous in Ohio and nationally for its wrestling prowess.

At St. Paris Graham in the southwest corner of the state, mats come first in the winter, nets second.

The Falcons have won 10 state wrestling titles and, this year, under coach Jeff Jordan, a four-time individual state champion at Graham (1980-83), recently captured their eighth straight Division II championship. And, they are the No. 1 ranked prep wrestling program in the nation.

But the rural St. Paris school community in Champaign County has also found some room in its hearts to embrace its unbeaten and fifth-ranked basketball team, which is making its first trip to Columbus for a state semifinal.

Libbey will face Graham (26-0) in tomorrow's 10:45 a.m. D-II state semifinal at Value City Arena. That game kicks off the 86th annual boys state basketball tournament.

Before this season Graham had won only one district title in boys basketball. That came in 1972, when it lost in the regional semifinals.

Coach Brook Cupps' youthful Falcon starting lineup includes only one senior, 6-2 forward Travis Crooks, who averages 6.7 points per game.

Joining Crooks are three juniors - 6-2 guard Josh Schuler (19.7 points), 6-2 guard Austin Jones (10.8 points) and 6-0 guard Ben Rosenberger (7.3 points) - and 6-3 sophomore forward Ethan Ward (10.7 points), who is the team's top rebounder. The lead sub is another sophomore, 6-1 forward Casey Crable.

Schuler and Jones are third-year starters.

"I think some of the success of the wrestling team has carried over to our guys," Cupps said. "They recognize all the work the wrestlers put in and the payout they have gotten from that work.

"We're a pretty young team and we started playing pretty good at the end of last season. Our guys played about 70 or 80 games last summer and we scrimmaged some good teams like Dayton Dunbar and [Huber Heights] Wayne and [Cincinnati] St. Xavier. The kids started to believe they could compete with that caliber of competition."

As Graham has done in wrestling - surpassing perennial D-I state power Lakewood St. Edward in the ratings - Libbey, which this year dropped to Division II for the first time, is trying to make a case as Ohio's best basketball team, regardless of classification.

The Cowboys have already beaten two of the four teams who have reached the D-I state semifinals, toppling St. Ed 72-58 in January in a game played at Value City Arena, and beating City League foe Whitmer twice, by counts of 72-39 and 78-37.

The Cowboys are led by 6-5, Ohio State-bound All-American William Buford (22.6 points), who was named D-II state co-player of the year on Monday along with future Buckeyes teammate B.J. Mullens, a 7-1 center from Canal Winchester. Graham beat Winchester 64-50 in the regional semifinals.

Rounding out Libbey's usual all-senior starting five are 6-6 forward Julius Wells (11.7 points), 6-3 guard Brad Sandridge (11.3 points), 6-5 forward Lance Jones (5.6 points), and 6-3 guard Tony Brown (8.4 points). The top sub has been senior Brad Burton.

With Libbey and Whitmer reaching the semifinals in their respective divisions, this is the first time two City League schools have made the state semifinals in the same season.

The closest the CL ever came to having two teams reach Columbus previously was in 1984 when Scott made the Class AAA semis and former league member Cardinal Stritch lost to Willard in a Class AA regional final.

Whitmer (20-5) will close the semifinals with an 8:30 p.m. matchup against Newark (22-4) on Friday. The Panthers' only other final-four appearance came in 1987 under coach Rick Kaifas. Whitmer, then a member of the now-defunct Great Lakes League, lost 54-49 to Canton McKinley at the University of Dayton that year.

Contact Steve Junga at:

sjunga@theblade.com

or 419-724-6461.



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