The Wildcats are heading to the final four for the first time in 20 years. The last time Saint Ignatius made it to the final four, they were state champions with a 49-46 win vs. Cincinnati Elder to claim the program’s first and only state championship. The Cats find themselves now just two games away from a state title as they take a trip to Dayton, Ohio.
As the Wildcats approach the State Semi-final round vs. Westerville Central, Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce has found ways to get his guys acclimated to play in a college arena. On Thursday, the Cats practiced at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. “This was extremely special,” says Joyce. “I just want to get these guys as prepared as they can be heading into this weekend.”
“It shows that our hard work is paying off,” explains senior Henry Raynor. “This is going to help us getting used to the arena feel.”
University of Dayton Arena is where the final four action will take place for this weekend, and coach Joyce credits his wife for the idea of practicing in an arena before taking the trip to Dayton. “I wanted to get a college court on Friday or Saturday, but she gave me the idea of holding an arena practice before the trip,” says Joyce. “Coach Kyle Hubbard had a connection with the Cavaliers, and they were able to get us in, and I think that brought a new energy to practice.”
“Seeing the different levels between a high school gym and a pro gym is crazy,” says junior guard Jon Effertz. “This is what everyone works for to get to that level, so it was pretty special.
The Wildcats appear to be getting better after each playoff game. After the slow start vs. Parma, the Cats have fired on all cylinders, closing out tight contests against Lorain, St. Edward, and Lima. “I think that is attributed to our defense,” explains senior center Will Yontek. “The confidence is high that we can get stops late in the game to get us a W.”
“Closing out games shows the growth of this team,” says Joyce. “Earlier this season, we played outstanding teams, and we had mistakes late, but now we’ve seen those steps late in the season, and we’re executing late into the season.”
The Wildcats run a young starting lineup that features a freshman point guard, C.J. Little. At first, watching Little play, you would not believe that he is a freshman. Little appears to be a veteran of the sport at his age. A playoff run to any freshman can seem daunting, but Little credits coach Joyce through the postseason’s progression.
“Coach Cam has helped me and talked me through the playoffs,” says Little. “I was struggling in the beginning, but he was able to calm me down, and I have been playing better ever since then.”
Along with the Wildcats young lineup is sophomore Braydn Szczepaniak. The 6’4 guard has stepped up with a significant role in the playoff run with senior captain Mike Mattimore out of the lineup. Szczepaniak has been a critical piece on the Wildcat defense.
“We have a lot of confidence,” says Szczepaniak. “We’re ready for anything that comes at us in a close game, and we have confidence in each other.”
Looking into the match-up ahead of Saturday night, the Westerville Central Warhawks are coming off an incredible ending in the Regional Championship against Gahanna Lincoln. With 1.9 seconds left and trailing by two senior guard, Tasos Cook threw up a prayer from half-court and sank the shot at the buzzer. The Warhawks were crowned regional champions with a 45-44 final.
The Warhawks this season have a record of 22-2, averaging 60 points per game as a team. They are lead by the regional championship hero, Cook. Cook averages almost 20 points per game in 25 minutes of work. The Warhawks have incredible guard play. Quincy Clark averages about 12 points per game this season.
“It starts with those two (Cook and Clark),” says Joyce. “We are going to believe in our defense to slow those guards down.”
The men down low, Yontek and Raynor, are seeking to use the height advantage over the Warhawks.
“They have athletic guards,” explains Yontek. “I think if we’re able to slow down their guards, we should be good.”
“We have to use our size to our advantage,” says Raynor. “They are going to try and speed us up with their solid guard play, so we have to play solid defense.”
For the first time in the history of OHSAA basketball, a father and son have led separate teams to the state semi-final in the same year. Dru Joyce II, the father of Cam, is leading St. Vincent-St.Mary in the Division II state semi-final. The Joyce family is seeking a successful weekend at the University of Dayton. Dru is seeking his sixth state championship, while Cam is attempting to achieve his first state championship, which would also be Saint Ignatius’ second title in program history.
The week of anticipation is over; it is time for Final Four action from U.D. Arena. The Wildcats will take on the Warhawks at 8 p.m. in the Division I state semi-final round. Due to OHSAA regulations, the SIBN will be audio-only on Saturday night. The winner of this match will take on the winner of Mentor/Centerville in the state final on Sunday at 8 p.m. Kurt Pickering, Mcrey Socha, and Danny Gibel will be on the call from Dayton.