Anticipating that his team might have the talent and experience to take a big step forward this season, Olentangy Liberty High School boys basketball coach Greg Nossaman put together what he expected to be a challenging schedule.
In addition to winning an OCC-Buckeye Division that had three other teams post winning overall records, the Patriots faced three out-of-area opponents that went on to win 20 games as well as two others that would win Division I district championships in Newark and Pickerington North.
It put Liberty on a path to survive a regional in which it had to defeat last year's regional champion, Pickerington Central (66-58 in overtime March 14), as well as earn a second win over North (64-58 on March 16) to reach the state tournament for the first time.
"I thought we'd have a really good team this year, so we bulked up our schedule and were very competitive all year long," Nossaman said. "Our league was very competitive from top to bottom. The non-league losses are going to happen and they've risen to the occasion more than once this year."
The Patriots won 14 games in a row before their season ended with a 58-49 loss to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in a state semifinal March 22 at Ohio State, giving them a final record of 24-5.
Nossaman, who also coached Willard to a Division II state semifinal in 2001 and has a career record of 367-194, is 168-93 in 11 seasons at Liberty with two district titles.
"It was a little bit different (at Willard) because it was a small town and the whole town lives and breathes basketball up there, but I've noticed here that since we've gotten into a winning streak that our whole community has surrounded us and shown us a lot of support," Nossaman said. "In the (regional) win over Pickerington North, we probably had 1,500 people there. They've rallied behind us."
Against St. Vincent-St. Mary, the Patriots trailed 28-16 by halftime before cutting the deficit to 45-42 with 4 minutes, 12 seconds remaining.
After the Irish extended their lead to 51-44, Liberty cut it to 52-49 but got no closer.
Liberty shot just 5-for-24 from 3-point range and was held below 50 points for just the second time all season.
"It's a dream come true (being at state) because a year ago, I was in (physical therapy) just watching the games and not really getting to play, and I would have never expected the season to be like this," said senior forward Ben Roderick, who scored 25 points. "It's an awesome experience and I'm glad it happened."
Roderick missed the final seven games of last season, when Liberty finished 11-13, but returned to become the district's Player of the Year and a first-team all-state honoree.
The path of senior forward Mitchell Kershner was filled with ups and downs this winter. A Rochester signee, he missed 13 games with a foot injury but returned for the final 12.
"I heard the news that I thought I was going to be done for the year and it really hurt because us seniors have been playing forever and I really wanted to be out there with the guys," Kershner said. "I got a second opinion and was able to come back in a month. That was just a great feeling to be out there playing with them and to get to the state semifinals."
Roderick averaged 27.5 points and closed his prep career as the program's all-time leading scorer with 1,817 points. Kershner averaged nine points.
Other key seniors were post player Llwyatt Hofer, forward Jack Metzger, forward Nick Nakasian and guard Joey Thatcher. Nakasian averaged 16 points and Thatcher averaged eight.
Sophomore guard Henry Hinkle, who had 16 points in a 72-65 win over Hilliard Davidson in a district final March 9 as the Patriots avenged a 64-62 loss Jan. 22, averaged eight points and two assists.
Junior guard A.J. Rausch and junior forward Kal Jayaraman are the only other contributors eligible to return.
Roderick was OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year. Nakasian was first-team all-league, Thatcher was second-team all-league, Kershner was special mention and Hofer made honorable mention.
Nakasian also was third-team all-district and Thatcher was honorable mention all-district.
Others on the state tournament roster were juniors Colin Brenner (forward) and Ben Wrather (center) and sophomores Tylar Foster (guard), Andrew Wade (forward) and Cole Young (center). Wrather and Young are 6-foot-6 and 6-7, respectively.
"I thought we had a good game plan (against St. Vincent-St. Mary)," Nossaman said. "We wanted to keep the score as low as possible because they can score some points, but we just didn't make shots. That's the game of basketball.
"I thought a lot of things had to fall in line this year and a lot of things happened, but the biggest thing was Mitchell Kershner coming back. He was hurt (the first) four games (that we lost). It's so refreshing watching this group play, and I'm glad Mitchell was able to come back because it was big for him, too."