WCPO high school sports reporter Mike Dyer received 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, which saw the Crusaders (29-0) win their fifth Division I state basketball title.
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Moeller basketball coach Carl Kremer finished breakfast and walked to the front of the Lindberg Room inside the Hilton Garden Inn mid-Saturday morning with a purpose.
The Division I state boys basketball final was still some 10 hours away, even though the hotel near the airport was just a 15-minute ride from the Schottenstein Center.
Moeller won its fifth state title Saturday night, but just getting to the tipoff of the D-I state final can feel like an eternity.
Players and coaches seated at five circular tables looked at a large screen, ready to watch a final team film session on a familiar opponent, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Chairs were turned to look intently at the Moeller High School principal, who also happened to have 574 coaching wins.
Kremer folded his arms a couple of times.
“Look at me, guys,” Kremer said. “Look at me in the eyes.”
The candid tone set the stage. Moeller had won four state titles and had been to the state Final Four eight times under Kremer, but none of that mattered the Saturday morning of the state final.
“We better have the hairs of our neck standing up ready to compete,” Kremer said.
The undefeated Crusaders shot 67 percent Friday night in the 20-point win over Lakewood St. Edward. After the state semifinal, the media lauded the Crusaders’ offensive effort. Some reporters asked if undefeated Moeller would do anything different to prepare for the state final, especially given the undefeated record.
“I think our preparation is going to be the same as every game,” senior point guard Miles McBride said. “We are going to go as hard as we can in the film room and as hard as we can in warmups and play the game.”
The Crusaders’ coaching staff wasn’t about to allow the players to rest on their laurels of an early December game in which Moeller defeated visiting St. Vincent-St. Mary 99-62.
“Here is what I believe – the two best teams in Ohio basketball, period, are playing in our game tonight,” Kremer said.
“Since they played us – look at what they have done since they have played and look at the teams they have played. These guys are damn good. I will tell you why they are damn good. Athletically in every spot – they are as good as it gets in high school basketball. They play with a chip on their shoulder. We helped them get there. We are going to be the focus of that chip to a large degree. Don’t underestimate what you are getting into tonight. They better not underestimate us, either. If they think we are coming in fat and happy, then they have no idea who we are.”
The Fighting Irish had won the past two Division II state titles. SVSM has a state-record eight state titles. Coach Dru Joyce III coached LeBron James. The Irish had not lost to another Ohio High School Athletic Association-sanctioned team this season besides Moeller.
Kremer insisted SVSM had no mental edge in the state final. Yet, he wanted the Crusaders to play with the same type of fear they had back in December – with an urgency and energy that couldn’t be matched, especially defensively.
“This will be a 32-minute war,” Kremer said. “If you are not ready for that, if you are not ready to commit to that physically, don’t even step out there. Because they are going to bring it, and we are going to bring it.”
The assistant coaches didn’t need to stay up until 4 a.m. Saturday dissecting film on SVSM’s offense. But during his five-minute introduction to the film session, Kremer insisted the game would be very close. Moeller had better be ready or else it would get its butt kicked, Kremer said bluntly.
Assistant coach Danny Jurkowitz said the Crusaders had to be efficient at rebounding, putting their hands up and quickly getting to the gaps defensively.
Jurkowitz warned the players SVSM is so athletic that none of the Crusaders would be able to defend without the benefit of each other.
“If you think you are going to do it one-on-one, then you are going to lose,” Jurkowitz insisted.
Mike Sussli, another longtime Moeller assistant, urged the players to take charges. He went over some other defensive techniques and scouting reports on individual players.
“We have to win the battle of the boards on both ends,” Sussli said. “We have to get double-digit offensive rebounds – we have to keep them to single digits. If we win the battle of the boards, we are going to be in great shape. That’s just committing to one another.”
Never a doubt
As Moeller did all season, the Crusaders (29-0) played for one another on the floor Saturday night.
Twelve hours after the film session at the team hotel, the Moeller players and coaches celebrated their second straight state title with a 52-44 win over SVSM.
“I’m at a loss for words,” senior forward Michael Shipp said. "I’m so happy.”
The game was a battle of wills to the end. Only two other teams (Lakota East and Chaminade Julienne) lost by single digits to the Crusaders all season.
Senior forward Alec Pfriem said he wanted the final to be a hard-fought championship game. McBride said there was never a doubt, even though the Crusaders trailed by five midway through the third quarter.
Moeller was the first area large-school division team since Elder (1973 and 1974) to win back-to-back boys basketball titles. Prior to Saturday, a large-school division boys basketball team hadn't been undefeated in the Greater Cincinnati area since Hamilton Taft won the Class AA title in 1962 (27-0).
“It’s just like anything else in school,” Shipp said. “Whatever you do in work – whenever you do something and you do it well – it feels good. But to do it perfect it’s just like another level of excellence, and that’s what this program strives for.”
The team purposefully didn't promote the career statistics of Pfriem and McBride during the season. On Saturday, the standouts combined for 35 of the team's 52 points.
McBride, who made his third consecutive state Final Four, was 57-1 as a starting guard.
Pfriem, who made his fourth consecutive state Final Four, was 102-16 as a varsity player and scored 1,267 points overall between Roger Bacon and Moeller.
“What am I most proud of?” Pfriem said with a smile. “This kid right here (Miles). This is my best friend. This is the person I am most proud of.”
McBride gave him kudos right back. The two players hugged. McBride vowed as a freshman Moeller would win the state title his senior season.
On Saturday night, McBride was so locked in the moment he couldn’t reflect upon his entire career. But he did think back to the 2017 state runner-up team that had been undefeated up until the state final.
“I do it for those seniors my sophomore year,” McBride said. “Sophomore year we obviously didn’t get it done and I do it for those guys. Keegan McDowell, Riley Voss, Caleb Canter – I really did it for them.”
That was vintage Moeller basketball. Everything as a team. The journey. The tradition.
Saturday night's celebration moved to the same Schottenstein Center locker room around 10:30 p.m. where the Crusaders jumped up and down 364 days earlier for its fourth state title.
Moeller graduated four starters from that 2018 state championship team. But the Crusaders' resolve never left. And 91 practices later, the Crusaders wore the championship medals, carried pieces of the net and gripped the trophy once again.
“They play with a lot of pressure,” Kremer said. “I mean it’s hard to describe that to people. I’d rather have a few losses and be able to grow. I think playing with that undefeated team and the expectations that everyone had makes it feel so good tonight that it was hard and it was close. That was a great way to end this. I think these kids stood up to a lot of toughness, and I am proud of them.”