By Jeff Louderback
Before practice on Thursday, Centerville boys basketball head coach Brook Cupps had a discussion with Elks senior point guard Ryan Marchal about news that neither coach nor player hoped they would receive.
The OHSAA announced it would uphold Marchal’s two-game suspension after he was inexplicably whistled for two technical fouls in Centerville’s regional semifinals victory over Springfield the previous night, even though video footage showed the neither call was warranted. The ruling means that the Elks’ leader on the court and on the sideline will miss Saturday’s regional final against Moeller along with the state semifinal, should Centerville advance.
“It was the hardest moment I’ve had as a coach, sitting down with Ryan and letting him know that the OHSAA upheld the suspension,” Cupps said. “Life is not always fair, and how you react to adversity reflects who you are as a person and a leader. He is mature, unselfish and positive in the midst of a difficult situation.
“Once he learned he would not be able to play, he shifted his focus to how he can help with his leadership and encouragement. It’s a reflection of his commitment to this team and our program,” Cupps added. “Ryan brings toughness that has a positive impact with his teammates, on and off the court. His presence will provide that spark from the bench, before the game and throughout the game, helping lift his teammates and their mindsets.”
After an exuberant Elks’ practice on Friday, Marchal talked about his approach in the wake of the OHSAA ruling.
“My emotions got to me when I found out I wouldn’t be able to play. Then I picked myself up and turned my attention to helping the team prepare for the game,” said Marchal, who’s averaging nine points, four assists and 3.5 rebounds per game on the season. “We have a next man up mentality here, and we have many guys capable of playing well on both ends of the court.
“This is about the team and not me. I can’t be selfish and dwell on what happened, and neither can my teammates,” Marchal added. “We believe in each other, and I know we can win this game.”
Centerville’s opponent in Saturday’s regional final has a 46-game win streak dating to last year and holds the distinction of being the defending state champions, the top-ranked Division I program in Ohio and part of USA Today’s Top 25 prep hoops teams in the nation.
If that is not challenging enough, they will be without Marchal, and 6-foot-9 junior center Mo Njie is dealing with a sore ankle that he injured in the fourth quarter on Wednesday.
Magnifying the storyline of the contest where a trip to the Final Four is on the line, they have an 18-game win streak of their own, and the last loss was to the mighty foe they meet on Saturday.
Considering all of these factors, there is no way Centerville can beat the Moeller Crusaders, right? Don’t tell that to Cupps, and his balanced roster that features an array of senior leaders, and the intimidating Njie.
“We’re used to being the underdogs,” said senior Jason Sneed, whose defensive intensity has significantly contributed to the Elks’ surge. “When we were 4-5, likely nobody outside of this gym thought we would win a district championship and be playing in the regional finals. What matters most is that we believe.”
Moeller is a team worthy of their standing, Cupps says, and the Elks will be prepared when the game tips off at 7 p.m.
“We have respect for Moeller. They are well coached and have a talented group of players,” Cupps said. “Yet we have confidence, and we are going there as an inspired team that knows we belong, and we have the ability to win.”
Guided by a roster that is paced by the balanced scoring, the 22-5 Elks rebounded from the aforementioned 4-5 start that included losses to Louisville Trinity (57-54), Trotwood-Madison (75-65), Springfield (64-60) and Wayne (47-41) before falling at Moeller (54-33) on Jan. 5. In the next game, Centerville edged Miamisburg, (38-34), the first of 18 wins in a row.
The Elks only have one player averaging in double figures in scoring, senior Matt Pearce at 12.4 points per game (47.7 percent from the three-point range). Along with Pearce (and Marchal), fellow seniors Sneed (7.3) and Kaleb Mitchell (6.6), and Njie (8.7), are the only other players scoring more than five points a game, illustrating their balance.
Led by West Virginia University commit Miles McBride, Moeller is known for its superb defense. The Crusaders limited Winton Woods to 15 points in the district finals and held Lakota East to 29 percent (9-for-31) from the field in a 47-33 regional semifinal win on Wednesday. With Moeller’s stingy defense, and its deliberate pace, the importance of every possession will be heightened. Cupps thinks that his team’s balance and roster of fundamentally sound players will make it an interesting game.
“We do everything by committee as it is, even with Ryan, so we are not limited to one or two guys who can handle the ball and the defensive pressure,” Cupps said. “It’s important that we execute the fundamentals, minimize turnovers and be selective with each play.”
Centerville’s slow start to the season can be attributed the time it took for players to settle into roles and thrive in those roles, Marchal said. Njie agrees and thinks that the Elks are better as a unit now than they were when they lost at Moeller in early January. The team is on an added mission because of Marchal’s suspension, Njie says.
“It hurt when we were told that Ryan would not play because we are close as a team. There’s a lot of love and respect for each other, and trust in one another,” Njie said. “We want to play as a team on the court with him one more time, and the only way to do that is win our next two games and get to the state championship game. We’re determined to make that happen.”