Area state tournament basketball teams exceeded expectations
In past years, a former colleague would walk up to a few of us sportswriters during a district high school boys basketball game at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, point to one of the teams and whisper, "State champions," just to see our reaction.
It usually would elicit a laugh, followed by a "Well, probably not" reaction.
Had this same inside joke occurred about three weeks ago when Watterson was playing for its seventh Division II district championship, the response might have been similar.
Sure, the Eagles were expected to be one of central Ohio's better Division II teams and they were seeded second in the district, but if any area squad in their division seemed to have the pieces necessary to win a state championship, it probably would have been top-seeded Brookhaven.
Yet, it was Watterson that earned the trophy March 23, beating Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 55-52 at Ohio State for the first title in the program's 55-year history.
It's fascinating how a view of a team can change so radically between November and March, and this season's three Central District representatives in the state tournament are the perfect example of that.
Northland lost four starters from a year ago to graduation, including three Division I college recruits, which seemed to signal that its reign as central Ohio's premier team was over.
The Vikings entered the season having won four district titles in the past six years and having reached the Division I state tournament twice during that span, winning the title in 2009, but even coach Sean Taylor was shocked when his team was No. 1 in the season's first state poll released Jan. 7.
Northland remained atop the poll for the next six weeks of the regular season, showing that its roster this season was special in its own right.
The Vikings had only one key senior in forward Armani Towns -- who didn't play his freshman or sophomore seasons -- but they had a strong junior class and an emerging freshman in Seth Towns and won their first 28 games before falling to eventual champion Mentor 80-69 in a state semifinal March 22.
Fairfield Christian also was one of this season's feel-good stories.
There are fewer than 200 students in the Lancaster school and the Knights never had won even a district title until they edged four-time defending Division IV district champion Newark Catholic 59-55 in overtime March 6.
In a 59-55 win over South Webster in a regional final, junior guard and Pickerington resident Jordan Brake turned a steal into a basket as time expired in the third quarter to give his team a lead it never relinquished.
Fairfield Christian lost 61-58 to Leipsic in a state semifinal March 22, but its run was another example of unexpected success.
However, likely nothing was as unpredictable as what Watterson accomplished.
The Eagles' best player statistically was senior post player Bryan Jackson, but he averaged just 13 points and nine rebounds.
He battled foul trouble and played just 17 minutes in a state semifinal March 21, but Watterson still found a way to win, beating Kettering Alter 53-42 to end the 50-year career of retiring coach Joe Petrocelli.
In that game, junior post player Matt Hughes stepped up with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
In the state final, the bloody nose sustained by junior guard Cody Calhoun midway through the fourth quarter epitomized Watterson's season.
The Eagles may have gotten knocked down occasionally as a result of the physical, defensive-oriented style of teams in the CCL, but they managed to win their final 23 games despite being held under 60 points in 18 of those contests.
It wasn't always pretty to watch and there weren't thunderous dunks, but sometimes a team will go on a run that, for a lack of a better description, is magical.
Northland and Fairfield Christian had some of that charm this year, and Watterson had a lot of it.
Jarrod Ulrey is a ThisWeek sportswriter. Follow his blog, "On the Recruiting Trail," for the latest in central Ohio high school recruiting news.