Cheatham Norrils of St. John's races to the ball ahead of Kevin Gaskins of Clay.Norrils averages 12.2 points and 4.0 assists for the Titans (18-4).
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
At least in high school boys basketball in Toledo.
When told back in late November that his St. John's Jesuit team was picked by City League coaches to repeat as the league's champion, 31st-year Titans coach Ed Heintschel chuckled in disbelief.
Sure, St. John's returned what was arguably the CL's best guard duo — senior Jay Springs and junior Cheatham Norrils — from a 20-6 league champion and Division I state semifinal team.
But Heintschel himself wondered why his fellow coaches would pick his team, which graduated the City League's player of the year in Michael Taylor and the CL's top front court tandem in Tim Simmons and Tim Kynard.
Heintschel's sentiment? “What are they thinking?”
Nearly four months later, were the City League coaches right after all?
Yes, no, and yes again.
Jay Springs, a senior, leads the Titansin scoring with a 14.4 scoring average.
The Titans (18-4) will meet Lima Senior (15-9) in a D-I regional semifinal at 7 tonight at Savage Arena, so the final answer was ‘yes.'
Tonight's winner travels to the University of Akron for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. regional final.
With Springs and Norrils joined by promising 6-7 freshman Marc Loving (12.1 points, 6.8 rebounds), who emerged as a formidable inside-outside player, the Titans got on an early roll.
With senior guard T.J. Gillespie (10.8 points) also joining the starting lineup to provide a solid 3-point threat, the Titans raced out to a 10-0 start in league play (15-2 overall), and clinched the No. 1 league playoff seed.
So, ‘yes,' on the first count.
But, in between, St. John's closed the league schedule with a 60-58 loss at Libbey, followed that with a humbling 72-63 loss to rival St. Francis de Sales in the City playoff semifinals, and appeared lackluster in its sectional tournament-opening win over 3-17 Clay.
Back to ‘no' again but, when all was decided at the district, St. John's was once again the last team standing.
The Titans, who had edged St. Francis 60-58 in overtime in league play, won the rubber match with the Knights 45-37 in the district semifinals.
St. John's then topped CL playoff champion Central Catholic 49-41 to win its 13th district championship under Heintschel (553-175 career record, .760).
So, what went wrong with St. John's, and how did the Titans get their groove back?
T.J. Gillespie looks to pass against Clay. The senior averages 10.8 points per game.
Defense, defense, and more defense.
“Cheatham sprained his ankle in the Scott game and missed the Bowsher game,” Heintschel said, “and everything seemed to be kind of slowly deteriorating.
“Really where it happened was at the defensive end. We saw it happening and tried to get the guys' attention, but it wasn't very effective. We went to Libbey and Libbey really played hard and played with purpose. Then, against St. Francis, our defensive flaws just came flying out, as they do against a good team.”
Back to the drawing board.
“After that [loss to St. Francis] we just went back and worked them really hard,” Heintschel said. “We had some long practices for this time of the year. It was a lot of defense, and a lot of whining by coaches about performance.
“It wasn't a crisis. It was just, ‘If we're going to do this, you guys have got to get it together or it won't happen.' It wasn't going to happen automatically.”
Springs, an All-City first-team pick at 14.4 points and 3.4 rebounds, felt a bit of urgency with his high school career drawing to a close, maybe sooner than he had thought.
“We weren't focused on defense and we weren't playing up to our ability,” Springs said. “We also weren't working as hard in practice as we were supposed to be.
“I did not want to go out early in my last year. Our defense has been better. We're playing hard and focused, we're helping out and boxing out and rebounding.”
Norrils indicated that the 10-0 start might have created a false sense of security.
“I think we got too complacent and thought we were just going to come out and beat everybody,” said Norrils, who has averaged 12.2 points and 4.0 assists. “We didn't play as hard. St. Francis came out and played harder than us. That left a bad taste in our mouths not winning the City League.”
With time running out, the more challenging practices were a necessity, as was the renewed senior leadership roles of Springs and Gillespie, whose 3-point prowess of late has been instrumental in the turnaround.
“I don't think the 3-pointers have turned everything around,” said Gillespie, who has hit 11 treys in three tourney games and 61 for the season. “I have just been able to hit some shots.
“But our defense is what is turning everything around. We've been holding teams to lower field-goal percentages.
“We had all defensive drills [after CL playoff loss] for like 45 minutes. It was real hard. We definitely got the point, and we've been performing on the court. It turned everything around.”