They took different paths to the Division IV district finals held Friday at the University of Dayton Arena.
Catholic Central (22-3) won the Ohio Heritage Conference and finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press state poll. Emmanuel Christian (10-14) finished sixth in the Metro Buckeye Conference and just cracked into double-digit wins with the school’s first sectional title last Saturday.
»RELATED: Wednesday’s high school scoreboard
»RELATED: Wednesday’s high school roundup
All that matters now, though, is that the Irish and Lions are still playing. Both teams take the floor Friday in a district final triple-header at UD Arena.
Catholic Central, making its first district final appearance since 1997, plays the Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington Blue Jays (17-8) 5:30 p.m. Emmanuel Christian, making the program’s first-ever district appearance since the school opened in 2000, plays the Russia Raiders (15-8) at 7:30 p.m.
Fort Loramie (23-2) and Middletown Christian (6-18) cap the night at 9:30 p.m. Marion Local (20-4) and St. Henry (21-3), which finished 1-2 in the Midwest Athletic Conference, play the other D-IV district final 7:30 p.m. in Wapakoneta.
“The core of our group is young,” Emmanuel Christian coach Dan Moore said. “I think most people thought it would be next year that this would hit. We were hoping it would hit a little sooner this year. But it finally hit. It finally clicked.”
At the right time, too. Five teams finished ahead of ECA in the MBC including Troy Christian (20-3), Dayton Christian (18-6) and Legacy Christian (18-7). None remain.
What’s been the Lions’ secret?
“We followed what (Moore) has been teaching the entire time,” senior Nick Kittles said.
The Lions have played as underdogs most of the season and persevered through key injuries, including a couple season-ending ones. They know Russia will be favored, especially after finishing in a three-way tie with Fort Loramie and Anna for the always-tough Shelby County Athletic League title. That’s fine with the Lions. They’ve been counted out many times this season.
“We didn’t really care if we were the underdogs because that gave us an advantage,” ECA senior Thomas Mullins said. “We like being the underdogs. We like being the team that comes out of nowhere and shocks everybody.”
With sectional tournament upsets over Franklin Monroe (70-54) and Tri-Village (61-48), Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier has warned his team to focus on ECA’s results, not the team’s record.
“I’ve seen them on film a couple times and I’m not going to call them an underdog,” said Cordonnier, who guided the Raiders to the regional tournament in 2015. “I think they’re very similar to us. It took them some time to figure out who they are … and they’re playing very well right now.”
Catholic Central plays a Ripley-Union team that makes its first district appearance since 2004. Prior to this season the Blue Jays had not won a playoff game in three seasons. Catholic Central coach Cody Sarensen said Ripley’s guard-oriented offense is tenacious, scrappy and has a variety of players that can shoot from outside.
The Irish, who demonstrated balance with a strong inside-outside game in the sectional final, knocked off Cedarville (60-42), Newton (68-37) and Legacy Christian (42-40 in overtime) to reach the district title game.
“It’s been a great team effort,” Sarensen said. “Every guy has demonstrated their role very well on what we need to do. … I’m just excited for them to have the opportunity to play here. It’s really neat for families to see their sons playing on this court. It’s definitely a great experience.”
Catholic Central senior Deece Catanzaro took in the district atmosphere last season after the Irish lost to Southeastern in the sectional final. Coming so close last season served as inspiration for the team’s five seniors.
“I came here to watch Southeastern last year and I was like, this could have been us. I’m glad to be here,” said Catanzaro, who certainly won’t be alone this trip. “We have a lot of fan support. All of our students come to our games, even though there’s not that many, but they still come to support us.”
The district final winners advance to the regional semifinals Tuesday at Kettering Fairmont High School’s Trent Arena.
“This is a good way to turn out the senior year,” Mullins said of the Lions’ tournament run. “We’re just going to play basketball like we do every night. We’re going to love it and we’re going to enjoy it.”