The 2019-2020 athletic season was an odd year for everyone. As teams canceled games, seasons, practices, and workouts, Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce's Wildcats snuck in their year just in time. After losing to Rhodes in an overtime playoff loss, the Wildcats knew that the following season couldn't be taken for granted. So, the boys worked in the best fashion they could to prepare for a season that wasn't even set in stone.
In the off-season, coach Joyce's main concern was his players' health and safety amid a pandemic. "I wanted to make sure everyone was safe and healthy," says Joyce. "We were doing weekly zoom calls when the pandemic first started."
With several seniors moving on, Joyce chose his captains. Seniors Henry Raynor and Will Yontek each took on leadership roles. As the chances to have a season became more likely, the team began to work on their game in the best possible way. Whether you had a hoop in your driveway or access to a local rec center, Joyce was still coaching remotely. "The other coaches and I were sending the team clips of ball handling drills and shooting drills to help them out during the pandemic."
The Wildcats lost several key players from the past season, especially at the point guard position. Luckily enough, Joyce hit the jackpot with C.J. Little, a true freshman point guard. With five seniors and a handful of underclassman, Henry took the initiative to get them on track:
"I just showed them how to work hard in practice and during games," says Raynor. "I would notice them getting overwhelmed and lead by example."
Without hesitation, Saint Ignatius Basketball began the season against the Walsh Jesuit Warriors. The Wildcats started that game much like the season in general, on a 5-0 run. As the squad took down Walsh 69-51 and Raynor had 19 points, the Cats were a boulder that would not stop.
In the next four games, the Wildcats had to prove themselves with a line of tough opponents. Covid then derailed the Wildcats after a game cancellation, and so, they scheduled a 24-hour notice game against the highly ranked Medina guard Corey Tripp. With multiple offers and making the Sportscenter number one play, his dominance was known to the players and coaches. The Wildcats came out on top in that one with a close 62-60 victory. Several high scorers led the way with 17 from Raynor, 16 from the team's sharpshooter Jonathan Effertz and 11 from Little in just his second varsity game.
There is a certain comfortability level that is present in coach Joyce's second season with the Wildcats. "The Miami trip last season is where we bonded, the players got to know us, and the trust was there," says Joyce.
"I know them a lot better, especially the senior group, along with Shondo Green and Effertz."
Following the Medina game and still yet to play at Sullivan Gymnasium, the Wildcats had another tough individual matchup against Brush. In a game without fans, Mike Mattimore and the Cats pulled away from a tight 51-49 victory with back-to-back wins by just a bucket. The boys from Ohio City took pride in their success late game. The junior guard A.J. Fletcher took over in an intense fourth quarter notching 11 points in the game.
With a gap in the schedule and the boys hungry to play, Coach Cam reached out to teams all over Northeast Ohio on Twitter asking for an opponent, and so in the next game, back on the road, the Wildcats would travel down to Green. The Bulldogs played through a three-headed monster of scorers testing the waters of the Wildcat defense. With genius tactics, the Wildcats once again put up a fight. Tied at 44 in the fourth, Effertz threw up a prayer that fell short and sent the Wildcats and Bulldogs to overtime. The Wildcats rode the leadership of Raynor in the overtime, winning 54-46 over the Bulldogs.
"These wins just proved we are going to be a contender for a state title this year," says Raynor.
The roller coaster hit the top of the hill and began its voyage down. With the most challenging four games on the schedule all in a row, the Wildcats couldn't catch their breath and went on to lose four straight games and three of them within six days of each other.
As the Wildcats played in the most challenging part of their season, Joyce met his father, Dru Joyce, on New Year's Eve. Last year's loss lit a fire in the father-son matchup, and this year, Sullivan Gymnasium was the location.
The Fighting Irish maintained the number one team in the entire state for the majority of the year and was led by Ohio State commit Malaki Branham. The Wildcats started with a 10-8 lead, but Branham put SVSM on his back, taking them on a 6-0 run with a permanent momentum shifter. Effertz continued to light up the offensive end with points left and right, but Branham's 18 points led all scorers and brought the Wildcats down 50-40.
Just two days after the loss, the Wildcats traveled to Hilliard Bradley to match up against a very underrated team. Unfortunately, the players were missing their team captain, Raynor, due to Covid tracing. The Wildcats kept the game low scoring but too quiet for the Cats with a 50-37 loss.
As the team's record fell to 5-3, the most anticipated game was just ahead. The second-year coach knew that his squad was desperate for a team victory.
"We played some tough teams, came up short, but that is a part of it," says Joyce. "The goal is not to be undefeated; the goal is to get better and better as the season goes on."
Next up on the slate was rival St. Edward Eagles, the number five ranked team in Ohio, and averaged 72 points per game. The Wildcat defense needed to stay locked in. The first half wasn't easy, although the game was close. The guard tandem between Michael Bova and Shane Macalla attacked the Wildcat's flaws with a combined 22 points. The 46-38 deficit set up a comeback that the boys needed to pull off. In another late-game battle, Henry Raynor stepped up big time with an and-one to make it 75-72. The Eagles took in the home court atmosphere, splashed a transition triple, and knocked down consecutive clutch free throws to send their rivals on a four-game losing streak with a final 84-76.
With a second game ahead in the future against their famed rival, the Wildcats starved to turn things around. They had the chance the very next day with another home game against the Maple Heights Mustangs. The game was close throughout the first half, but Joyce fired up his team at halftime. The blue and gold came out attacking from all angles and finally gave the Wildcats the cushion they needed. Looking to get their confidence back up, Joyce subbed in two J.V. players for the first time all season. As the bench roared, Sean Martin and Owen Marcua each scored from behind the three-point arc. The Wildcats were all smiles after the 71-49 victory.
"Streaking is what we do. We have had a tough schedule, and we learned a lot along the way," says Joyce. "That was a tough stretch, and hopefully, down the road when we see some teams like that, we aren't losing anymore. We want to learn from the mistakes we had, and we want to grow."
And boy, did the Wildcats learn from their mistakes. Little did they know that victory was the first of many.
The Wildcats would rattle off six straight wins when they would square up against the St. Edward Eagles for the second time this season. "We knew we had to defend better in game two," says Joyce. "Jon struggled in the first game, and I wanted to get him some looks in the second game."
The Wildcats and Eagles were in a tug-of-war battle throughout the first half; however, the Cats would take a slim 28-23 lead to the locker room. The second half was painted blue and gold. None other than Effertz scored first for Saint Ignatius. The Wildcat defense locked down Bova shooting 0-3 from behind the arc. Scoring stayed quiet with a Wildcat 32-25 lead with 4:30 remaining in the third. Five straight missed threes kept hopes low for St. Edward. Effertz splashed one in from the wing, and the home team maintained a 12 point lead. The 35-29 lead set up an intense 4th quarter nicely for Joyce's boys.
Raynor and Effertz led the way for the Wildcats that night. Effertz dropped in 20 points from the field, "My success is because of my teammates. It is a team effort, and WE won the game," says Effertz. Raynor finished the game with an impressive six blocks and 15 rebounds as the Eagles did not have an answer for him in the paint as the Wildcats won their seventh straight game.
"I think that it may help us look inward on what to improve as we prepare to make a run," says Yontek about how the long win streak will help the Cats in the postseason.
The Wildcats would add two more wins against Shaker Heights and Rossford, demonstrating their substantial depth in the regular season. Amid a nine-game winning streak, the Wildcat faithful witnessed some of the young talents. "The freshman and J.V. team are the foundation," says Joyce. "That J.V. team was tremendous this year; shoutout to Coach Parker, and his staff, 19-2, three freshmen starting. I'm excited to see those guys grow in the program."
The Wildcats wrapped up their regular season on back-to-back road trips. The first battle was against the Jackson Polar Bears. The first half of the game was all Wildcats, and the second half was all Polar Bears. Raynor led the Cats in scoring with 17. The 57-46 loss snapped the nine-game winning streak for the Wildcats and lowered the team's confidence with an important game the next night in Mentor.
With a standing 18-0 record, averaging 88 points per game, and 40 rebounds per game, the Mentor Cardinals are remarkable. The Cardinals have a three-headed monster with three senior superstars on their team. Between Steven Key II, Jonah Waag, and none other than Luke Chicone, Mentor is a heavy favorite for the state title. Although the team succeeds with excellent team chemistry, Chicone is a whole separate headline. Not only is he averaging 24 points per game with performances over 30 and even 40 points in a game, but he is also a McDonald's All American nominee, the Northeast Ohio Player of the Year, and a candidate for the Mr. Ohio Basketball title.
Mentor maintained a 30-20 lead midway through the quarter. Chicone had a hunger to achieve as he hit a three, and a smooth layup on back-to-back possessions took the Cardinals up by 14 to close the half. The Wildcats were held silent all night in the season finale. The game came to a close with no excitement in the third quarter, and a final score of 58-33 as the Wildcats finished the regular season with a 14-6 record.
"I think those losses help us a lot," says Joyce. "Jackson was a tough place to play, but it was a winnable game. We had opportunities to win that game, but we came up short."
"This past weekend left a bad taste in our mouth," explains Mattimore. "I think it could be a good thing because we are even hungrier to make a deep run, I'm really excited to see what we can accomplish these next few weeks, but we need to take it one game at a time and not get ahead of ourselves."
The playoffs have been a tough time for Saint Ignatius Basketball, with a four O.T. loss two years ago and another O.T. loss last season. The Wildcat's 14-6 record placed them as the number two seed in the playoff bracket. The Wildcats will take on the Parma Redmen after their victory Wednesday night against Twinsburg. The game will take place on Saturday, February 27th at 7:00 p.m. That game will be a home game for the Cats, which is a huge confidence booster:
"A Lot of confidence as a team because we know the rims, we know the court, it's a familiar place to play," says Joyce.
Be sure to tune in on the SIBN throughout the OHSAA Playoffs as Joyce says, "Starts with getting the first win."