Toledo Christian's Eric Cellier, left, battles with Ottawa Hills' Blake Pappasfor a loose ball at Ottawa Hills High School.
Sometimes, a game is more than just a game.
Friday night at Ottawa Hills was one of those occasions, when the emotion of a tragedy merged with the spirit of teenagers attempting to deal with grief while honoring the memory of one of their own.
The host Green Bears of Ottawa Hills did that, getting some late free throws to take the lead, and then secure it, in a 49-47 Toledo Area Athletic Conference boys basketball victory over 10th-ranked Toledo Christian.
“It’s been a difficult week for everyone here in the school and the community,” Ottawa Hills coach John Lindsay said.
Ottawa Hills was mourning the loss of 18-year-old senior student Brian Hoeflinger, who had died one week earlier in a one-car accident off Edgehill Road after attending the Green Bears’ basketball game that night.
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Funeral services for Hoeflinger were held earlier on Friday, and symbols of his passing were evident throughout the game.
Ottawa Hills students wore light blue University of North Carolina clothing because Hoeflinger had planned to attend UNC. A moment of silence was observed prior to the national anthem, Bears players wore shoulder bands with the initials “BH,” and the school’s halftime dance group closed its routine in a formation that spelled out “Remember BH” on the backs of their shirts.
On the court, junior big men Geoff Beans (6-foot-6) and R.J. Coil (6-8) paced Ottawa Hills (14-3, 9-2 TAAC) with 18 points apiece, as the Bears pulled within one game of the first-place Eagles (15-2, 10-1).
Toledo Christian's Ben Ivan (11), Eric Cellier (5), and Josh Winzeler leave the court after being denied a share of the conference title by Ottawa Hills.
The Green Bears were playing without their top player, senior fourth-year starter Lucas Janowicz, who was averaging 17.2 points and 8.0 rebounds before being sidelined the last two games with a knee injury.
It was Coil, who also grabbed 12 rebounds, who put Ottawa Hills up for good, sinking two clutch free throws with 25.6 second remaining in the game to make it 48-47.
“It was tough playing without Lucas because we always count on him for about 18-20 points a game, so me and Geoff had to step up, and that’s what we did,” Coil said. “[Hoeflinger’s death] was definitely a tragedy, and we’re playing the rest of the season for him. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Beans’ 14-point third-quarter explosion enabled the Green Bears to rally from a five-point deficit (25-20) with 7:12 left in the period into a 38-29 lead on his 3-pointer with 1:55 to go in that quarter.
“The first time we played them they kicked our butt in the third quarter,” Beans said. “We knew we had to come out really strong there, get some layups to start us, and that would free us up outside.
“We also needed to get some stops on defense, and we did that.”
Answering Beans’ outburst was Toledo Christian senior standout Eric Cellier. The TAAC’s leading scorer rallied the Eagles from behind by scoring 12 of his game-high 23 points during a 6-minute and 15-second stretch in the fourth quarter, when TC climbed from down 38-31 to open the period into a 43-41 lead on a basket by Dominique Pittman with 3:48 remaining.
Cellier, who had knotted the scored at 41 on a 3-pointer 42 seconds earlier, then put the Eagles up 45-41 with another bucket with 2:57 to go.
But Ottawa Hills buckled down, got a three-point play from A.J. King (10 points) just 11 seconds later and, after Cellier hit two free throws for TC’s final points, got two free throws from Coil at the 1:19 mark, plus two more from him to go ahead.
“We had all of our fans up there supporting us,” Coil said. “I’ve never played in an atmosphere like this before.”
“They’re an outstanding basketball team and great competitors,” Lindsay said of TC’s rally, “so we certainly expected them to make another run, and Cellier is probably the most competitive one of them all.
“We just made one more play than they did. It was as simple as that.”
TC had a shot to win, but Cellier’s long 3-point try from about 10 feet above the circle rimmed out with three seconds left. Ottawa Hills’ King rebounded, was fouled, and added a free throw to the final line.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.