WCPO.com high school sports reporter Mike Dyer got behind-the-scenes access to the Moeller basketball team during its state Final Four appearance. Here's a peek into a day in the life of the state runners-up.
DUBLIN, Ohio -- The first sign of the Moeller basketball team at the Marriott Northwest was the breakfast buffet in the first-floor hallway Saturday morning.
Resplendent in its abundance of choices like cereal, breads, fruit and more makes you immediately aware you are in the midst of 19 teenagers who had frequented this large cart earlier.
With three large coffee urns against the opposite wall, you also realize there are a number of assistant coaches here too.
It’s 9:30 a.m., and the players have yet to arrive to a scheduled team meeting set to begin at 10:15 inside the nearby Grandview Board Room.
Save for the basketball court, the Men of Moeller use this executive room as the epicenter of strategy for the Final Four weekend. The coaches are pleased with the hotel arranged by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
The Schottenstein Center is about a 15-minute drive after you exit Ohio 315 South off Interstate 270. Moeller coach Carl Kremer asks an assistant to confirm that drive time. It’s important to stay on task with the itinerary, with meetings, practice, film study and meals in between.
Kremer sits at the head seat of the long table and pores over notes while sipping a Starbucks. A large monitor is behind him.
“Good morning,” Kremer says with a warm smile. “We’re doing well.”
The mood is businesslike but relaxed. Moeller defeated a very talented Pickerington Central team in Friday night’s first state semifinal.
The coaches have been up since 2 a.m., scouting and discussing strategy, but you don’t see any fatigue on this Saturday morning. After all, a state championship game is a mere 11 hours away.
Kremer has been coaching Moeller since the 1989-90 season. He has 519 career wins including three state titles and three other trips to Columbus.
Yet he’s the first to tell you his Associated Press state co-coach of the year award was a team accomplishment. There is a reason for everything on this day. Every person in the program has a purpose. Servant leadership is a common theme.
Another half-dozen assistant coaches are putting together final preparations to present the scouting report on Massillon Jackson to the Moeller players.
Moeller is familiar with its Stark County opponent from some evaluations earlier in the week. The Moeller players returned to the hotel Friday night and watched the Jackson versus Lakewood St. Edward semifinal from the board room.
Moeller sports information director Steve Albrinck went back to the hotel by 9 p.m. to print Jackson’s stats for the team to analyze.
Longtime assistant coach Mike Sussli was able to break down some of the tendencies of Jackson from that room. The team ordered Jet’s Pizza and devoured game film. An hour after the game, the coaches had other Jackson games on Hudl. This was going to be a long night.
Like any other road trip, assistant Jai Schiavone collects phones from the players at 10:30 p.m. and keeps them stashed away until the morning. He conducts a room check at 11:30 and there are no issues. Just smiles.
The players knew the opportunity ahead of them Saturday. The coaches were just getting started.
Wake up with a purpose
Two cinnamon rolls were all that remained.
A former parent of the program made three trays, and they had been gobbled up Saturday morning. Plenty of bananas and bottles of water were available, but those last two rolls were reserved for junior guard Jeremiah Davenport above the microwave in the board room.
After all, Davenport ate a few before Friday’s game and scored a career-high 17 points against Pickerington Central. The delicious breakfast treat would be reserved for him, the coaches joked.
A few minutes later, Davenport is one of the first players to arrive with his binder of notes from the entire season. Players look over their printouts on Jackson and the roster for familiarity sake.
Kremer walks to the front of the room armed with his tournament program and notes in his left hand with the Starbucks in the other. Class is about to start.
Sixteen players are seated at the table. The overflow manages to find space on the far wall.
Someone throws out Brach’s mints to the players at the tables. It’s just what the doctor ordered this mid-morning session as players playfully maneuver to catch the tiny candy.
“OK guys, let’s get rolling,” Kremer says at 10:18 a.m. “We have a lot to do today. Let’s get started.”
Kremer compliments the breakfast spread including the delicious bacon, and hopes the players enjoyed their meal, too. But, now it’s time to talk more hoops and get specific about Jackson.
The team is reminded that 197 teams played Division I basketball in Ohio this season. This session begins with perspective.
“Two teams are waking up this morning with purpose,” Kremer said. “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the day.”
Nowhere in the meeting do the players or coaches talk about winning or losing the biggest game of the season. Or that Moeller had the opportunity to become the sixth team in Ohio history to win a state title with 29 wins -- and become the first area undefeated large-school state champion since Hamilton Taft in 1962.
This class was all about schemes.
“I think Jackson is the best team we’ll play all year,” Kremer said. “They’re athletic, tough and physical. It’s going to take a great effort. A great effort.”
Defensive specialist Danny Jurkowitz, a 1997 Moeller grad, breaks down Jackson’s offense. He's a mad scientist, someone tells me. His attention to detail is second to none. Jurkowtiz is an authority on breaking down an opponent's habits and movements.
A Hudl film of Jackson’s game against Toledo St. John’s plays on the big screen at the front of the table.
"This guy will be hunting for threes," Jurkowitz said.
Sussli reminds the team to remember to keep with what has gotten Moeller to the state final. Assistant coach Fred Hesse emphasizes spacing on offense.
“I don’t know if we played anybody that wants to block shots the way these guys do,” Kremer said.
Said Hesse: “You can see they contest all this stuff.”
A few players speak up to ask questions, but they’ve been through this enough to understand. You don’t go undefeated for 28 games without being prepared.
Transferring knowledge to the court
At 10:46 a.m., the charter bus arrives at the hotel. It’s time for a late-morning shootaround at nearby Dublin Coffman High School.
The comfortable ride takes maybe 10 minutes. The traffic is light in this suburban neighborhood. You forget Ohio State is 20 minutes away.
A head count is taken before departure: 23 kids in all, 19 players and four student coaches. Check.
Just before 11, the team is down the steps and heading into the gymnasium on the side of the school.
Athletic trainer Craig Lindsey works on a player’s foot outside the gym. The players conduct their typical shootaround and go over defensive principles. A few visitors stop by to chat with some of the assistants. The players are focused but enjoying each other’s company.
Just like the entire winter, the starters and reserves are treated the same with their importance to the team. That’s Moeller basketball. Even on this final time of practice for the season.
“We really all grew together to be one family,” senior forward Riley Voss told me later. “A lot of teams say that after the season, but I think this was a different level. Each and every day was a new memory.”
Around 12:15 p.m., the bus is ready to get back to the hotel for a 12:45 light Subway lunch.
Schiavone reminds me about this journey. It’s tough for an outsider to completely understand the experience without being with the players and coaches every day after school.
Win or lose, Monday will be filled with melancholy since it’s the day the team cleans out its locker room. All these guys have been together for nearly five months this season. You don't replicate those months.
The mood is light on the bus and there is no sign of exhaustion. Everyone has enjoyed this journey. There will be time to reflect this Sunday at the team banquet.
“Every person brought something unique to the team, and I couldn’t imagine going through the season without a single person,” Voss said later. “For me, tournament time was something special I’ll always remember. We truly took every day like it was our last.”
The final game
I departed from the hotel lobby around 12:30 p.m. and wished Kremer and his assistants good luck later that night.
The players were told to relax during the day and could watch more film or ask questions if needed. A team meal was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., chapel at 6 p.m., and the team was scheduled to leave for The Schott at 6:15 p.m.
The Crusaders, ranked No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps and No. 1 in the Associated Press state poll, could not have envisioned an ending like Saturday night in front of 11,750 and a statewide live TV audience.
They rallied Friday night in the fourth quarter and would need to do so again.
But it wasn't meant to be Saturday night.
Two calls in the final minute caused controversy, including an intentional foul call which produced the game-winning point for Jackson. Moeller lost 39-38 in the fewest points scored by a large-school state champion since 1945.
As the horn sounded, raw emotion set in for Moeller. Players openly cried. Coaches had tears in their eyes. It was a harsh reality of what sport can produce just 12 hours later.
“I just feel bad for our guys,” Kremer said with a quiver in his voice after a lengthy pause. “They worked hard. They did everything the right way. It didn’t work out tonight.”
The bus ride home was quiet Sunday morning. No one had to say what everyone was thinking. Players and coaches reflected and offered perspective on the entire journey.
“Thanks to everyone for the incredible support this season,” Kremer tweeted Sunday morning. “It is a privilege to represent Moeller.”
The players understood that too. None of them will ever forget this special season. The student section, parents, alumni and fans will be sure of that as well.
“The Moeller brotherhood is like no other,” sophomore guard Miles McBride tweeted. “I love this team and a big shout-out to @CrusaderCalvary and the whole community for the support.”