It was an event. There was no doubt about it. Doorways jammed with fans waiting to get seats once the girls championship game was over. Two schools from the same city playing in a district basketball championship game was bound to bring out a lot of folks. There was an atmosphere about the place. Deep down…those that had followed the Jefferson varsity boys basketball team all season could sense it. Nobody dared to say it, just in case a jinx could be invoked, but as spectators settled in their seats Friday night, most were there to see one thing…
If the Blue Jays could beat the St. Pius Lancers, a team that had defeated Jefferson twice already this season, the men in blue would possess something no other boys team at JHS had ever been able to put in their trophy case. Just 32 minutes of hard work, dedication, and will could put a district championship plaque where every student for the rest of eternity could pass by and admire it.
“We were very confident going into this game,” said Hadyn Wagner. “We wanted this more than anything in the world.”
“There were nerves early, I think,” said head coach Sean Breeze. “But I don’t think it lasted too long. Playing in an atmosphere like that is an opportunity that only so many people get, and I told them to soak it in.”
If one was close to the floor, looking into the eyes of the Blue Jays, it was evident there was a focus. There was a sense of determination that was almost palpable. At least on the surface, there was no evidence of nerves…maybe there was a comfort from being at home…but from the opening tip, the Jays made it known the Lancers would have to pull out all the stops to ruin this opportunity. Jon Weik opened the scoring with two baskets, the second coming off a steal. After the Lancers hit a field goal, Easton Null drilled a three pointer to make it 7-2 with 4:41 left in the first quarter. The Lancers would come back…all good teams do. They tied the game at 7-7, 8-8, and with a buzzer beating three pointer at the end of the quarter, 11-11.
But nobody figured that would be the closest St. Pius would get to winning the game the rest of the way. When Weik drained a three with 7:34 to go in the second quarter, the Blue Jays would never trail or be tied again. Jefferson was accelerating, and they would never let off the gas. Weik hit an inside bucket which led to a St. Pius timeout with 5:58 to go. After the Lancers would hit a free throw out of the break, Levi Ebersoldt nailed his only basket of the night to make it 18-12. Later, Colby Ott would provide a highlight as he made a put-back basket, then stole the ball ten seconds later and drove to the bucket where he got leveled. He missed both free throws, but his sudden burst of energy just invigorated the Jays more. And while the score stood 23-19 at halftime, it seemed like the Blue Jays were ahead by more.
What the Jays were able to do was bottle up the Lancers’ offensive game. They couldn’t get into a rhythm. Every driving lane was clogged, every passing route was filled with hands, and every shot was contested. The defense would be outstanding the entire game. “Playing defense is not a fun thing to do,” Breeze pointed out. “But these kids have played as good a defense as we have seen in these past three games. It was very fun to watch.” According to Ebersoldt, practice made perfect. “We really stressed it in practice, that we had to play like we were fighting for our lives,” said Ebersoldt. “But I think for the most part it was pure adrenaline. A game like that, it’s impossible to not have the juices flowing.”
Coming out of the break, one expected the Lancers to try to make a run right away. They got the first basket of the third quarter to pull to within 23-21 at the 7:39 mark. Fifteen seconds later, Jacob Bridges scored his first points of the game with a three pointer to push the lead back up to five points. Eleven seconds later, St. Pius pulled to within three and then, after a Blue Jay empty possession, they had the chance to get closer or tie, but Weik took a charge on the defensive end. Then seventeen seconds later, he drained a three pointer…28-23 Jefferson. Null hit a basket at 6:10…30-23 Jefferson. The next scoring play could have been the biggest turning point of the contest. Null pulled down a rebound and sent a long pass down the court to Erik Eisenbeis. Instead of going in for a contested layup, he drove on the baseline, away from the basket. Null, who was trailing behind the play after getting the rebound, all of a sudden found himself wide open to the right of the key. He received the pass, set himself, and barely moved the net as he delivered another three pointer giving the Jays a 33-23 lead, and forcing St. Pius to burn another timeout. There was 5:19 to go in the quarter.
The Lancers returned to the sideline to talk things over, but they were moving slower now. Doubt had crept in, and according to Bridges, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. “I don’t know if anything they did could’ve stopped us once we started hitting our shots,” he said. “We just kept gaining momentum as the game went on. We all knew what we each had to do to win the game. From the best player to the last guy off the bench, everyone knew their role, and everyone contributed. You could just see the look of defeat on their faces.” Weik agreed. “I could feel the momentum deep down, and I knew we had it.”
So the Jays kept coming at them…a steal by Weik and a long pass to Eisenbeis who sent it to Null for two points. Then, after a Pius free throw, Bridges took a great pass from Weik for two more points, and Jefferson led 37-24. At the end of the quarter, a Weik three gave Jefferson its biggest lead at 44-30 with 33 seconds to go. The Lancers made a three of their own to make it 44-33 heading into the final eight minutes.
St. Pius scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, but free throws by Eisenbeis and Null helped the Jays keep their distance. Collin Gosnell gave the Blue Jays a ten point lead with 4:20 to go, and after trading baskets and free throws, Eisenbeis made a layup while falling to the floor to keep the lead at ten with 2:50 to go. Another long pass from Weik to Null 45 seconds later, put Jefferson up 60-49, and the Lancers would never get it back under double digits the rest of the way.
As the seconds were counted down, Null dribbled out the clock. When the buzzer sounded, he threw the ball in the air and joined his teammates as they embraced, jumped and shared a moment of unbridled joy that winning a first-ever district championship can bring. After the plaque was awarded, it happened again, and then it was shared with the student cheering section. Parents came down and got pictures, the net was cut down…people weren’t leaving…there was too much to savor.
“This really means a lot,” said Gosnell. “Not only to me, but it to all those little kids that were at the game tonight…they will be affected the most. It’s not all the time that we get a crowd like that, and not everybody gets the opportunity to play in a game like that. But hopefully, the younger kids saw what it was like and got a taste of the excitement. That excitement will hopefully drive the legacy of Jefferson basketball forever.”
Coach Breeze noted that the community deserved this. “I am so happy for the school, the fans, and the entire community. It was easy to see at the end of the game how much this meant to Blue Jay Nation. It was great to step back and just watch them enjoy the moment. This community supports their teams as good as anybody, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.”
Eisenbeis was amazed at the atmosphere created in his home gymnasium…a place where he had just played his final game in familiar surroundings. “It’s absolutely incredible playing in front of a crowd like that,” he said. “The energy and environment in the gym was insane. It can be a little bit intense with all the different stuff going on, but we did a great job handling it. For me, it felt like a normal game because I personally love the attention,” he said with a grin. Coach Breeze said the crowd played a huge part in the Jays’ success. “The boys didn’t need any extra motivation tonight. The energy in the gym was unbelievable, and they fed off of that.”
Weik was incredible, scoring 25 points in leading the team. He was consistent throughout the game, and the Lancers had no answer for him. Null finished with 18 points after being held to just four in the first half. Bridges scored eight, while Eisenbeis added six. Cole Holdinghausen, Gosnell, Ott, and Ebersoldt chipped in with two points each, and Daniel McWhorter closed out the scoring with one point.
Null had no doubts playing the Lancers twice previously was a benefit. “It helped. I really think we played how we should have tonight, and that was the outcome. Our defense was dominant. And I even think we could still score better. We just had a game plan to guard each person a simple way, and we stuck to it.
And there’s always a danger, when such a high pinnacle has been reached, that a team will get swept away in it and not be able to refocus. “I think you give them about 24 hours off, and then get back to work,” said Breeze. “That’s the price of success…you have to keep working, but I think they’ll be ready.”
The Blue Jays will continue into uncharted waters on Wednesday as they will play the winner of District 4, which has yet to be determined. The game will take place at Jefferson College at 6:00 p.m. Class 3 State Tournament Bracket