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The Basketball Cats Win the Season Opener

By Eli Maistros '24 & Justin Dedrick '23, 11/29/22, 4:30PM EST


The Cats come into this season with State Championship aspirations as they win the Home Opener against Euclid.

OHIO CITY, Oh - Once again, the expectations are through the roof for the back-to-back Regional Champion Saint Ignatius Wildcats. Going into his fourth year at the helm, Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce is looking to continue his success as he already has two trips to Dayton. 

Coach Joyce's squad has a good mix of returning players and players who were key contributors to the undefeated junior varsity team last year. It should be a special season from Sullivan Gym as the Wildcats look to build on their success from the past two years.

Junior guard Ace Buckner headlines the backcourt. The 6'2" 162-pound Buckner, the son of 10-year NBA veteran and current assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers Greg Buckner, should have incredible growth over the offseason. Buckner is a true three-level scorer, able to get a bucket behind the three-point arc, in the mid-range game, or at the rim. He will be joined alongside running mate Carter Jackson. 

Also a junior, Jackson will miss the team's first stint of the season, recovering from an injury. Jackson is efficient with the ball, and his silky smooth mid-range jump shot and defensive range pair him perfectly with Buckner. These two have big shoes to fill following the graduation of the team's leading scorer Jonathan Effertz and transferring Calvin Little, who joined Garfield Heights. 

Coach Joyce has a plethora of guards at his disposal to give Jackson and Buckner rest. Sean Martin has varsity experience and unlimited athleticism, as shown by his impressive work as a running back on the football field. 6'3" Michael Lamirand was a staple of the undefeated junior varsity team. 

He has a sweet shot and can guard anyone on the court. Last year, Matt Ellis was a key varsity player who could get hot from three-point range any night. Junior Jack Zapolnik, junior Max Woidke, junior Ezekiel Alfonso, and senior Omar Zayed can get a crucial score or stop. 

Also listed as a guard on the roster is senior Braydn Szczepaniak. The 6'5" senior was given the honorable #34 Jim Skerl '74 jersey by coach Joyce. The recipient of the jersey number "emulates the character of Jim Skerl, who played, worked, taught and served for the Greater Glory of God." 

On the court, Szczepaniak is a do-it-all player who leaves it all on the floor in practice and during games. Szczepaniak will be a key wing player, separating the guards from the big men on the team. 

Behind him is Sam Springer. Springer stands at 6' 7" but can put the ball on the floor and shoot three-pointers, which is a nightmare for defenses. Alijah Haddox also joins the wing rotation, coming off a football season that saw him play meaningful playoff snaps at receiver. 

Despite losing Little, the Wildcats also got a transfer splash of their own, as junior Reece Robinson, son of Cleveland State men's basketball coach Daniyal Robinson, will suit up in the blue and gold. Robinson stands at a monstrous 6 '9" and will be a force in the middle, replacing the graduating CJ Yarian '22, the team's leading rebounder and blocker. Joining him down low will be senior Owen Maruca. Maruca is a 6' 6" two-sport star, as the senior starter on Head Soccer Coach Mike Mclaughlin's '85 State Championship winning team as a center back. 

Maruca saw meaningful minutes in the playoffs and the backstretch of last year, starting as the team's center. Damon Friery is one of only two Sophomores on the roster, joining Quinn Woidke, who will miss this season because of a torn labrum. Friery is a whopping 6'9" but plays like a small forward, showing great driving and shooting abilities. Coming off of the bench is Tristan Marshall, a 6 '6" senior with an incredible wingspan, who is a phenomenal defender under the basket, swatting shots with ease. Senior Gus Rossman closes out the big man rotation, who can cause problems under the basket with his 6'7" frame. 

After months of hard work and preparation, the Wildcats suited up for the first time this season against the Euclid Panthers. After a disappointing home opener last season, the Cats were looking to start the new year in the win column. 

SIBN Players of the Game vs. Euclid: Tristan Marshall and Matt Ellis

Euclid went 10-13 last season while the Wildcats were fresh off a miraculous Final Four run in the playoffs. Expectations had been building up for the Blue and Gold since that playoff run and they did not want to let those expectations get to them. 

Emotions were also high due to the return of Tom Parker '10. Coach Parker helped to lead last year's JV Cats to their first-ever undefeated record and helped to develop many of the new varsity players that had moved up this season. He received special recognition in his first game back in Sullivan Gym. 

Unfortunately, the Cats were without multiple key players for the matchup. Junior guard, three-year varsity player Carter Jackson, junior guard senior Owen Maruca, and highly touted football player Sean Martin were absent from the game. Matt Ellis stepped into Jackson's starting role for the night and was pivotal to the Wildcats' game plan. 

Early-season jitters must have affected both squads as turnover ran rampant throughout the game. The Wildcats looked to run a fast-paced offense to open up to an early lead, and although working, forced sloppy play at times. Two early buckets from junior Reece Robinson and threes by Ellis and junior Sam Springer helped the Cats to end the first quarter with a 23-15 lead. 

Ellis was the key difference maker for the Cats throughout the night, posting a game-high 20 points on 9-13 (69%) from the field while adding two three-pointers. Ellis attributed his flurry of punches to his teammates after the game, saying, "I think just the whole team turned over and hit me on the layups and that's it." 

The Wildcats stepped up on the ball's defensive side in the second quarter, holding the Panthers to just seven points. Two blocks by Reece Robinson created the energy the Cats needed to increase their lead to 12 points at the half with a score of 34-22. 

Saint Ignatius did not let up from the halftime locker rooms as they continued playing smothering defense. Senior Tristan Marshall burst out in the second half and ended his night with 14 points and five boards. The energy of the bench was through the roof, and the rest of the team fed off that energy to break out to a 19-point lead after three quarters. The new season's nervousness had finally seemed to wear off for the Wildcats as they started to show their chemistry and play team basketball.

The Blue and Gold breezed by in the fourth quarter and ended the game with a 31-point win on a final score of 73-42. The reserves received quality late-game minutes and even with a massive lead, the energy never left the Wildcats' bench. 

Buckner finished with a near triple-double totaling nine points, a team-high nine rebounds, and a team-high eight assists. The Cats showcased their monster defensive night with seven total blocks and 16 total steals. 

Robinson led the team with three of those blocks, while Junior Jack Zapolnik racked up a team-high five steals. Damon Friery had an all-around complete game tallying eight points, seven rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. 

As a team, the Cats shot 48% from the field and just 29% from beyond the arc. They doubled Euclid's steal total and nearly quadrupled the Panthers' assist total. The Wildcats committed 16 team turnovers; something coach Joyce will look to address before their next matchup. 

Next up for the Cats is Gilmour Academy on Friday in the Sullivan Gym. The Wildcats defeated Gilmour last year 63-45. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. and the SIBN will have live coverage of the matchup.