An inside look at Moeller's state basketball championship weekend

Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-27 06:17:58-04 high school sports reporter Mike Dyer got behind-the-scenes access to the Moeller basketball team during the state tournament this past weekend in Columbus. Here's a peek into the weekend that saw the Crusaders win their fourth Division I state basketball title.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Twelve hours before Moeller triumphantly completed its state championship journey, the most pressing challenge was where to find a seat inside the AC Marriott’s Valencia meeting room.

The oversized rectangular table waited for the arrival of 23 Moeller basketball players along with coaches, statisticians and student coaches on this state championship morning in a new real-estate development in Dublin, Ohio, just 20 minutes away from the Schottenstein Center.

Each step of the weekend in the Columbus area takes special coordination and advance planning.

From ordering two dozen Subway sandwiches from the Dublin Plaza location to the collection of smartphones before turning the lights out at night, there is a purpose: The coaches want the best version of a basketball team for the state final.

Detailed plans are no different this Saturday morning. The scouting reports, film study and player instruction is all part of a larger plan to capture a state title that night.

The Moeller basketball team studied film on Solon during a Saturday morning meeting at the AC Marriott in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Mike Dyer)

"Teams that are ascending win championships,” Moeller Head Coach Carl Kremer told his players earlier in the week. “I think we’re better every time we hit the floor.’”

Neatly folded uniforms and warm-ups lay on two chairs along a side wall inside the Valencia Room while a blue mesh bag of basketballs rests beneath.

A game-day practice awaits at Upper Arlington High School near the Schottenstein Center, but a 10 a.m. film study is absolutely necessary to learn about Solon, the state’s top-ranked team.

Thirty minutes before the team meeting, some Moeller coaches finished a delectable array of breakfast options in the main dining area. Coffee is always a friend during a state tournament weekend. Some of the coaches stayed up until 1 a.m. Saturday breaking down film and strategy on Solon.

The large platter of fresh fruit along with individual stainless steel buffet containers of eggs, bacon and potatoes tempt as you enter the room a short walk from the lobby.

But, this is only a time to indulge on stats and tendencies of Solon while listening to the advice of Kremer and his staff.

Moeller Statistician Steve Albrinck makes a few clicks on his laptop and it was soon apparent the chair would be ceded to Assistant Coach Danny Jurkowitz, who was prepared with statistical data that would inform everyone in the room.

Jurkowitz is a defensive specialist or a "mad scientist," as someone refers to him. It’s easy to see why. He has analyzed the points per possession for Moeller and Solon and it’s very close.

Moeller Assistant Basketball Coach Danny Jurkowitz prepares for a team meeting Saturday morning. (Photo by Mike Dyer)

At 10:03 a.m., Jurkowitz closes the door. Conversations halt. A state championship is at stake for the Crusaders and it begins way before entering the arena.

Preparing 23 teenagers’ minds for a game is nothing new; but this is the state final. It’s also the final morning everyone is together as a team. The anticipation is thick, but the players smile.

Moeller senior forward Jaxson Hayesneeds a pen and one is quickly tossed across the table. Everyone has a good seat. A screenshot of Solon’s game film is displayed on the large screen.

No one says it in the room, but an 8:30 p.m. tip-off is a long time to wait. Three other state champions will be crowned in that time period. At one point during Saturday morning’s film study, Kremer made a point of saying the players needed to be disciplined on defense tomorrow instead of tonight. It was understandable.

Playing in a Division I state final is a test of patience just as much as it is talent and execution. Moeller versus Solon would be the first time the top two-ranked teams in Division I will play in the final since 2009.

“This is an ultimate challenge,” Kremer reminds the players of playing Solon. “That’s what the ultimate challenge should be. Let’s lock in.”

A week of patience and preparation

Moeller made its seventh state tournament appearance last week, including the first time it went to the final in back-to-back seasons.

The Crusaders’ coaching staff is adamant about having an itinerary. It’s simply being smart for all those involved. Still, nothing can ever prepare a team for everything.

Through no fault of its own, Moeller had to change hotel arrangements earlier in the week. Just like in a game, you have to be ready to adapt.

During a team meeting March 19 at Moeller, Kremer and the coaches reminded the players about some of the details surrounding the week leading up to the state Final Four.

There was a parent/player meeting that night. Logistics were worked out. Questions were answered. Assistant Coach Doug Horst sent out an email with the agenda for the weekend.

Everything is carefully planned – from the send-off rally at 9:15 a.m. Thursday to the bus arriving back at Moeller at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Everyone wants to know something, including the media. The spotlight grew larger as the game drew near. Kremer advised his players to be appreciative of the opportunity earlier in the week. They earned everything this season. The state Final Four was part of a larger journey.

The main media storyline around this team included a possible redemption of last season’s one-point loss to Massillon Jackson in the state final. The Crusaders were that close to a perfect season.

While Kremer acknowledged last season’s team, he also wanted to be mindful that every squad has its own journey. This winter wasn’t an extension of last season.

“These people come around with all this unfinished business (talk) and I told our guys, ‘there is no unfinished business,’” Kremer said in an interview earlier in the week. “Last year was last year’s journey. We had some of the greatest kids ever on that team. We had an unbelievable season and lost by one (to Massillon Jackson) in the state final, but that has zero to do with this year. I don’t buy into all that ‘unfinished business.’ This is 100 percent about this team’s journey.”

Nearly 800 teams played in Ohio this season and only four would win state titles. Don't forget to be grateful. But, having perspective is key.

“’It’s going to be a great week, guys,’” Kremer said March 19. “‘Everyone is going pat you on the back.’”

But, he also urged his players to remain low-key and stick to the task of preparation.

One of the most important aspects of that was to not allow word to get around school that junior guard Miles McBride was practicing with the team and preparing to dress against Lorain in Friday’s state semifinal.

Moeller junior guard Miles McBride takes a shot during practice Thursday afternoon at Dublin Coffman High School. He made his season debut Friday night in the state semifinal. (Photo by Mike Dyer)

Kremer didn’t want McBride’s return to be a distraction. He wanted his whole team to concentrate on the task at hand and not any hype or social media about a player. McBride hadn’t played in a game all season so Kremer was careful not to put too many expectations on him.

McBride was cleared by the doctors and started practice March 19, yet Kremer didn’t publicly comment until 4 p.m. March 23. That was all by design since the team had already arrived at the Schottenstein Center for the 5:15 p.m. tip-off.

McBride made his debut on a night when the Crusaders needed him on both ends of the floor.  He made a jumper in the corner with 4:40 left in the fourth to give Moeller a five-point cushion.

The Crusaders didn’t play their best game Friday night in a 51-44 win over Lorainbut McBride’s presence was felt in his 13 minutes. Kremer vowed McBride would be better in the state final and he did just that.

The next morning at the hotel, McBride said it felt amazing to be on the floor with his teammates.

“Honestly, the guys kept me up throughout the whole season,” McBride said later. “They kept me involved. They wanted me to be a part of everything. I just never thought I’d be on the court with them. I’m happy I could help send these seniors off right.”

Hayes had 16 points and 13 rebounds while senior point guardIsaiah Payton had 12 points and senior guard Jeremiah Davenport had 10 points and nine rebounds in Friday night’s semifinal win.

But, it may have been Moeller’s worst shooting performance of the season (41.7 percent from the field and 7 of 16 from the free-throw line). The Crusaders never got into rhythm.

But, Kremer reminded the team and the media there are no bad state tournament wins. In fact, the team quickly turned the page to Saturday.

"Listen, I don’t know what happened last night and I really don’t care what happened because it’s over,'” Kremer said Saturday morning.

Moeller spent 23 minutes in that team meeting Saturday morning. By 10:26 a.m. Hayes gathered his teammates together outside the room and the players chanted, "1, 2, 3 – Family" in unison. A minute later, the team boarded its Executive Charter bus for Upper Arlington before a light lunch.

Moeller senior guard Jeremiah Davenport and Moeller Assistant Coach Danny Jurkowitz are among those walking to the charter bus to prepare for a morning practice at Upper Arlington High School Saturday. (Photo by Mike Dyer)

Another team meal followed three hours later before chapel at 6 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, the team was on the road to The Schott.

'The best feeling in the world’

With arms waving and jumping into place on the sideline, several players counted down the final seconds were ready to celebrate the program’s fourth state title at 10:15 p.m. Saturday.

But, they couldn’t just yet.

Five of their senior teammates – members of the Gold Team or varsity practice squad – were on the floor.

“’Wait until it hits zero,’” Albrinck told the bench. He repeated the word ‘wait’ eight more times as the players on the bench lined up and hunched over ready to sprint onto the Schottenstein Court.  

“’All right, go,’” Albrinck shouted.

Final score: Moeller 83, Solon 65. The celebration was on.

The Moeller players celebrate their Division I state title after defeating Solon 83-65 Saturday night in Columbus. (Photo by Mike Dyer)

The Crusaders didn’t always stick the game plan defensively, but it didn’t matter on this night. Big Moe left no doubt.

The Crusaders led Solon by 23 in the third quarter. The Crusaders had 64 points in the paint and too many dunks to count. Moeller shot 71 percent from the field – nearly 30 percent better than the night before.

“We just didn’t want to leave any doubt that we were the best team in Ohio,” McBride said.

After the hugs and high fives subsided, Moeller Athletic Director Mike Asbeck awarded each of the players their state championship medal. The journey was complete. Now was a time to exhale.

Ohio High School Athletic Association Assistant Commissioner Beau Rugg reminded the arena the Crusaders went 55-4 the past two seasons before presenting the state championship trophy.

“’The hard work all pays off when you get here and play like the way you did tonight,’” Rugg said. “’You played like champions.’”

The players spoke of the brotherhood in media interviews. Junior forward Alec Pfriem said winning the title was the best feeling the world. Hayes and Davenport spoke about the camaraderie among the 11 seniors, who would meet a final time as a team Sunday morning at the hotel.

"It feels amazing to be a state champion," Hayes said. "(Saturday night's) game and celebrations with my guys were so much fun."

Payton, nicknamed ‘Sleepy’ completed his career with a 62-5 record as the starting point guard. A dream he had Friday night back at the hotel became a reality on the Schottenstein Court Saturday night. 

“I dreamt about it all night,” Payton said. “I just saw this picture. I just love it right now. It’s awesome.”

Moeller senior point guard Isaiah Payton completed his career with a 62-5 record as a starter. (Tony Tribble for Moeller High School)

Bringing home the trophy

The celebration moved to Schottenstein locker room at 10:37 p.m. Saturday. Players jumped up and down while wearing pieces of the net.

“’Hey, who we got next?’” Hayes asked to no one in particular. He repeated the question.

A few moments later, Assistant Coach Mike Sussli had the answer. “Hey, Golden State!’”

The players howled in delight.

A short time later, the team jumped in unison and recorded the celebration. Kremer entered the locker room and danced.

Photos were snapped. More handshakes ensued among the coaches.

“What a journey,” Horst told me inside the locker room. “They are the most selfless group of individuals I’ve ever been around. They didn’t care if they were on the Gold Team or the Blue Team – they just wanted to be together. That’s really what’s special about this team.”

Later, the team returned to the hotel lobbyand was greeted with loud applause from the families and supporters of the team.

Maybe it was only fitting that senior forward Carlos Garcia held the trophy as the team walked into the hotel lobby. He hoisted it, grinning ear to ear.

His parents and their friends made the trip from Mason to Columbus. The rest of Garcia’s family lives in Puerto Rico and his grandparents watched him play live for the first time on Saturday night thanks to a monitor, which carried the live stream.

It was Garcia who lost playing minutes as a junior but worked his way back into the starting lineup this season thanks in part to 6 a.m. workouts, inspired family motivation and an inner determination that left Kremer saying he has no greater respect for a player than the 6-foot-2 starter.

Moeller players react to winning the state championship. Senior forward Carlos Garcia is No. 3. (Tony Tribble for Moeller High School)

“It was an amazing experience and even through all the adversity and struggle, I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Garcia said. “…My family has done so much for me and I’m so happy they could share the moment with me.”

Garcia said there were countless memories of this season but one he won’t soon forget is seeing the five Gold Team members – seniors Alex Deyhle, Jaret Tabler, Chase Kendall, Kevin Marklay and Dene White on the floor for the final moments of the state final. (Senior guard Jackson O’Bryan and senior forward Jack McCracken were key reserves for the Blue Team).

“They were just as important as anyone on this team and without them we wouldn’t have gotten where we did,” Garcia said.

Moeller Statistician Jai Schiavone thought of the Gold Team and the student coaches on a four-hour drive to Indiana to visit his parents Sunday afternoon. He also thought of last year’s seniors who were so close to an undefeated season.

High school sports is such an emotional rollercoaster. That is true in any season - from game to game, practice to practice and year to year.

For Moeller, there was the disappointment of 2017 to the sheer exhilaration of this weekend. They are all life lessons.

“I think Moeller basketball is not defined by a win/loss record, but by its culture,” Schiavone said. “It’s about what is important now and living in the moment. It’s also about the process over outcomes and living our core principles every day. It’s about starring in your role. One heartbeat. Seeing the results that our culture produces every year is really rewarding.”

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