Catholic Central trailed by 19 points, and on Dec. 28, this basketball season was looking too much like last season. Then, over the next quarter and a half, something season-changing happened.
The Irish started scoring and the deficit shrank. Hope became reality when Will Johnson made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. The extra four minutes belonged to Central for a 64-61 victory over Madison Plains in a tournament at Miami Trace.
The night before, the Irish had beaten Northwestern by 19 points. For a team that went 3-19 last year and finished last in the Ohio Heritage Conference, these two victories were like a second Christmas.
“The turning point of our season was when we didn’t have Tate Robertson and Casey Burns over Christmas,” Irish coach Dan Shay said. “We beat two pretty good teams with other guys having to step up.”
Stepping up has been Central’s theme and given the veteran players confidence in their younger teammates.
“The camaraderie we have with these kids is really unbelievable right now,” Shay said.
Shay has had about as many starting lineups as games in a 6-3 start. There have been injuries and school trips. Now, Burns and Joe Murphy are in the middle of missing four games because they are in Ireland for an independent study that Central sends some students to every year.
Youth has blended with the experience of Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, and five other seniors. Johnson had been the point guard, but in that turning-point weekend, sophomore Zack Young took that position.
“We’ve kept Zack there because he did a good job,” Shay said.
The starting lineup is now Johnson, Robertson, a junior, senior Ryan Fain, Young and junior Quinnton Howard, who played junior varsity with Young last year.
“They’ve taken bigger steps so far than we expected,” Shay said of Young and Howard.
Young’s emergence allows Johnson to play his natural wing position. Johnson now gets open off screens and special plays. When he is double-teamed he finds the open man.
“Taking Will off the point has helped Will and the other seniors have confidence in these younger guys,” Shay said.
The next game after the Madison Plains comeback, the Irish got everyone’s attention in the Ohio Heritage Conference with a 46-44 victory over conference favorite Mechanicsburg (9-2, 6-1).
With the score tied and 12 seconds left, Shay called a play for Johnson. But Johnson was double-teamed and the ball was in Robertson’s hands.
“Tate saw an open lane, drove it and made a floater with two seconds left,” Shay said.
And the Irish were on their way to a 4-2 conference record that had them alone in second place, one game ahead of Triad entering Saturday night’s game against West Liberty-Salem. Shay is happy with the start, but because of postponements his team has 13 games to play in a month.
“It’s very upbeat and there’s more confidence,” Shay said. “But we remind them every day that we’re just practicing for the next game.”