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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Irish look to pull off 2 more upsets

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Dareon Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, averages 11.5 points per game for Central Catholic, which is 20-4 this season. Dareon Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, averages 11.5 points per game for Central Catholic, which is 20-4 this season.
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Central Catholic boys basketball coach Jim Welling has enjoyed his team's underdog role so far.

The unranked Irish (20-4) will easily retain that role as they head to Columbus for Thursday's Division I state semifinals.

The other three teams in the field are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in Ohio.

Central will take on third-ranked Cincinnati La Salle (24-2) in the 5:15 semifinal at Value City Arena, and top-ranked Garfield Heights (22-1) will battle No. 2 Columbus Northland (25-1) at 8:30.

"It's been remarkable," Welling said. "I don't think anybody expected us to be heading to Columbus for the state championship tournament. We were third in the City League and lost in the first round of the City tournament. Fortunately for us, we got it going here towards the end."

The Irish have reached the state semifinals for the first time since 1949.

Toledo Central Catholic High School player Drew Lehman, 20, dribbles between Findlay High School players Kyle Boyd, 10, and Grant Birchmeier, 4, during the fourth quarter at Savage Arena at the University of Toledo Thursday. Toledo Central Catholic High School player Drew Lehman, 20, dribbles between Findlay High School players Kyle Boyd, 10, and Grant Birchmeier, 4, during the fourth quarter at Savage Arena at the University of Toledo Thursday.
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"We've got kids who are playing extremely hard, they believe in themselves and they're playing with a lot of heart," said Welling, who is 54-15 in his third year at Central. "We don't have the greatest talent, but we have a great group of kids and it's great to be around them.

"If you have 14 kids that all buy into the same thing, and they're good friends off the court, it's amazing what a team can do."

Welling will send out a starting five that includes senior team leaders Drew Lehman (5-11 guard, 14.0 points) and Dareon Jones (6-5 guard, 11.5 points), returning senior forwards and defensive specialists Jay Marquette (6-3) and Domingo Muniz (6-4), and freshman guard DeShone Kizer (6-2).

Keith Towbridge, right, has been big off the bench. He had 18 points in the regional final. Keith Towbridge, right, has been big off the bench. He had 18 points in the regional final.
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"We are just trying to stay focused," Lehman said. "Our goal is to win the state championship, not just to have a chance to play in Columbus. We're still working hard in practice and trying to get better. It's just been tons of fun. Everyone's real excited."

Jones agrees with Lehman on the goal.

"We're not happy just to be going down there," Jones said. "We really want to win it all. That's our focus, so until [Friday] we're just going to keep working hard.

"We take a lot of pride in our defense and we just have to listen to whatever coach Welling thinks it'll take to win. You have to buy into it, and that's what we did."

In La Salle, the Irish will somewhat be looking in a mirror from a scheme standpoint, as the Lancers also dictate tempo with their defense, play an unselfish offensive style, and do not feature an overly tall starting lineup.

La Salle is outscoring its opposition 58.0 to 40.3 points per game, while Central has topped foes by an average of 60.1 to 42.3.

Even the two veteran coaches have something in common away from basketball. Within the last seven months each has had a heart-related medical scare.

Welling, in his third season at Central after a highly successful career at Owens Community College, was diagnosed with 90 percent blockage in an artery back in August, and had to have surgery to insert a stent.

Jay Marquette, a 6-3 senior, is big reason the Irish are so tough on defense. Central has held opponents to an average of 42.3 points. Jay Marquette, a 6-3 senior, is big reason the Irish are so tough on defense. Central has held opponents to an average of 42.3 points.
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La Salle's Dan Fleming, who is 319-181 in his 21st season with the Lancers, suffered a heart attack March 7, and has been unable to coach. Assistant coach Pat Goedde, the point guard from his first LaSalle team, is the interim coach.

"We get after people pretty hard defensively, and we hang out hat on defense," said Fleming, who coached the Lancers to a D-I state title in 1996, edging St. John's Jesuit 59-56 in the final.

"I was a lot younger back then and thought we'd keep doing this [trips to state] a lot. But, it's been a long time between drinks of water."

The Lancers have big-game experience. Seniors Brandon Neel (6-3 forward, 14.7 points), Ryan Fleming (Fleming's son, 6-3 forward, 8.4 points) and Matthew Woeste (6-1 guard, 6.7 points) are all third-year starters while senior Trey Casey (6-1 guard, 9.4 points) and junior Josh Lemons (5-11 guard, 13.0 points) are second-year starters.

The Lancers have won Cincinnati's highly regarded Greater Catholic League the last three years, finishing 23-3 overall in 2008-09 and 22-3 (ranked No. 4) last season.

LaSalle defeated Cincinnati Moeller 46-35 in the regional final after beating Cincinnati Winton Woods 64-58 in the semifinals.

"Defensively, we're a high-pressure, full-court, 94-foot pressure type team," Fleming said. "We try to take away the passing lanes, and try to make you as uncomfortable as possible for 32 minutes with extreme pressure."

Central survived a regional semifinal with a 36-34 win over Findlay after the Trojans missed a 3-point try and a put-back attempt in the closing seconds. The Irish then romped 61-33 over Stow-Munroe Falls in the regional final. In its last four tournament games, Central has beaten teams with a combined record of 83-11.

Central's top sub has been 6-4 sophomore Keith Towbridge, who had 17 points and seven rebounds in a district win over St. John's, and 18 points and eight boards against Stow.

Senior guard Ben Dent, a starter until three games ago, sophomore guards Deontae Cole and Cliff Bussey, and senior forward Chris Boles, have all been productive off the bench.

Contact Steve Junga at: sjunga@theblade.com or 419-724-6461.



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