Cheatham Norrils, left, and Tarvis Malone of St. John's sandwich Whitmer's Ben Syroka in the City League championship game at Savage Arena.
In the 6:15 game, St. John's Jesuit (19-2) and 32nd-year coach Ed Heintschel return to a very familiar venue for what basically seems like an annual rite.
Meanwhile, Springfield (16-6) has a vastly different perspective.
The teams in tonight's game at 8, however, are very familiar with one another.
When this year's City League champion, 10th-ranked Whitmer (20-1), tips off against last year's City champion, Central Catholic (16-4), it will be the fifth meeting between the Panthers and Irish in the last 15 months.
Before the Devils topped Bowsher 80-69 in last Friday's sectional final, Springfield had not won a sectional title during 25 years under coach Tim Reiser, who was more familiar with the UT arena when he played for the Rockets.
The Blue Devils' last prior district berth came 29 years ago. Springfield's last meeting with St. John's -- a school just 1.4 miles away -- came in a 2007 sectional, a 73-37 Titans' win.
"We were close a couple times," Reiser said of Springfield's district drought. "We've been in sectional finals about 10 times and we were close in a lot of games but we were just never able to win those.
"One time, we lost a five-overtime game when we were in Division II. So, we've had some tough times trying to get out of the sectionals, but finally this year we did it."
The Devils are led by the potent offensive duo of 6-4 senior guard-forward Chester McFadden (16.4 points, 5.2 rebounds per game) and 6-2 junior guard Leroy Alexander (18.1 points, 8.0 rebounds), along with 6-3 senior forward Jeremy Weemes (10.5 points, 5.2 rebounds), who transferred from Toledo Christian after last year.
Rounding out the small-but-quick Springfield starting five are 5-7 senior point guard Quinton Green and 5-9 senior guard Dontai Renfroe.
"I think we've really come together as a team," Reiser said. "McFadden, Alexander, and Weemes have all done a nice job of playing together and complementing each other on the floor, and Green and Renfroe have done a nice job playing their roles.
"We were 3-4 at one time, but we've gone 13-2 over our last 15 games. A lot of that can be attributed to our defense. We switched to strictly man to man, and since we did that we've reeled off a lot of good games."
In addition to the vast St. John's tournament experience, the Blue Devils will also be spotting the fourth-ranked Titans a four-inches-per-starter height advantage.
St. John's, the City League runner-up, is led by the potent duo of 6-8 sophomore guard-forward Marc Loving (18.2 points, 7.4 rebounds), who has committed to Ohio State, and 6-0 senior guard Cheatham Norrils (12.0 points), a fourth-year Titan basketball starter who will play football at UT.
Nick Felhaber, left, of St. John's battles Central Catholic's Dareon Jones. Central plays Whitmer Thursday night in a district semifinal at Savage Hall.
Sharpshooting senior guard Nick Felhaber (7.5 points) is the top sub for St. John's, which has reached district play for 13 consecutive seasons and in 21 of the last 22 years.
"We played [Springfield] in the 1996 sectionals when they had the Doyle brothers and one of the Mossings," Heintschel recalled. "They were tough that year and they almost beat us. We ended up going to Columbus that year."
Differing tournament resumes aside, Heintschel expects a strong challenge from the Blue Devils.
"There's two things going on -- their excitement in being there, and the fact that we've been there a lot and can't afford to let their excitement exceed our enthusiasm," Heintschel said. "Because they haven't been there before on the bigger stage, you don't know if it'll help them more or hurt them. Who knows? I guess we'll find that out by the end of the game."
Panthers, Irish clash again
Last season Central Catholic defeated Whitmer 60-50) in the in the CL semifinals (54-39).
This year Whitmer swept two contests (48-40 in league play, and 44-38 in CL semifinals) from the Irish.
Whitmer, which made its last state semifinal appearance in 2008 under 20th-year coach Bruce Smith, hopes this year's Panthers have the right mix for another deep tourney run.
Taking the next step will require achieving what a sports adage says is a tough thing to do: beating the same team three times in a season.
"You're making it harder than it already is if you say you've got to beat them three times," Smith said, "because we really only have to beat them once. That's the approach we're taking.
"Those other two games are history. They mean nothing, and they have no impact whatsoever on the state tournament run. We're looking at it from the same approach they are -- we have to win one game [tonight] to advance."
Chester McFadden, left, Leroy Alexander and coach Tim Reiser celebrate Springfield's sectional title. The Blue Devils face St. John's Thursday night.
"Nigel has a basketball IQ that is extremely high, especially for a 16-year-old kid," Smith said. "It's a process of him being able to read defenders, and his patience and basketball IQ allow him to see plays one or two steps ahead."
Equally valuable to the Panthers' success, especially of late, has been crafty 5-11 senior point guard Ben Syroka (9.7 points), whose play in the City League playoffs was pivotal in Whitmer's title.
"Ben has been extremely valuable," Smith said, "and fortunately for us he's played his best basketball in the last couple weeks. Not to minimize anybody else's participation or contribution, but it's like football -- you're going to go as your quarterback goes.
"The ball's going to be in his hands 75 percent of the time. We've asked him to distribute and to score and to defend. We've put a great burden on him, but he wouldn't have it any other way."
Another Panther who has excelled in recent weeks is 6-3 senior Franklin Lindsey (8 points, 5.9 rebounds), who is shooting 50 percent from 3-point range on the season.
"Franklin is the most unselfish kid I've coached in recent memory," Smith said. "He's OK with one shot or 10. He just wants to play. Whatever we ask him to do, he says, 'OK, coach,' and he does it to the best of his ability."
Rounding out the first five are sturdy 6-7, 260-pound junior forward Chris Wormley (7 points, 6.5 rebounds), who is one of Ohio's top prep football recruiting targets, and steady 6-0 senior guard Mike Szymanski. Ohio State-bound football star Kenny Hayes (6-5, 260) adds depth off the bench.
"I kind of look at it as David versus Goliath, physically," Central coach Jim Welling said of his team's prospects against Whitmer. "If you match up player to player, they have a significant height and weight advantage on us."
Central counters with its 1-2 senior backcourt duo of 5-11 Drew Lehman (14.4 points) and 6-5 Dareon Jones (11.7 points), who scored 27 and 17 points, respectively, in their team's 66-44 sectional final win over Southview last Friday.
The regular Irish starting lineup has included seniors Jay Marquette, a 6-3 guard-forward (8 points), Domingo Muniz, a 6-4 forward (3 points), and Ben Dent, a 5-7 guard (5 points).
"In order for us to be a championship caliber team, and to beat championship caliber teams, you've got to play a complete four quarters," Welling said. "You can't have any bumps in the road.
"When we played Whitmer last time, there was a stretch in the first half where we went five possessions in a row without either getting a shot or taking ill-advised shots. Then, in the second half, we had seven consecutive possessions where we didn't score. That can't happen against teams like Whitmer."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6461.
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