DEER PARK, Ohio – Deer Park junior forward Joseph Hocker remembers running sprints last fall and hearing his teammates call out the season goals.
“We could call out ‘league champs, sectional champs, district champs, regional champs,’” Hocker said. “We would finally call out ‘Final Four’ and we are here now.”
Deer Park (27-0) plays Cleveland Heights Lutheran East (14-13) in a Division III state semifinal at 5:15 p.m. Thursday at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center.
The winner plays either Canal Winchester Harvest Prep (28-0) or Columbus Africentric (20-6) in the state final at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Deer Park coach Steve Gentry has maintained a simple message for his players in practice: Stay the course.
“Guys are practicing hard,” Gentry said. “I think they’ve measured this game and know it means to not only them but the community and everybody else. They are excited about even being in this game. The next step is to try and go out and win the game.”
Deer Park, averaging 83.7 points, is in the state boys’ basketball tournament for the first time in school history. The school district and community can't wait.
"This is probably the best community I've been a part of," senior guard Damani McEntire said. "They come and support us every game no matter how far we are."
The Wildcats will attempt this weekend to become the first undefeated area boys’ basketball team to win a state title since Georgetown (28-0) won in Division IV in 2007.
No area boys’ basketball team from Hamilton County has won a state title while going undefeated, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association records.
The magnitude of the moment may seem very significant, but Gentry believes his players won’t be shell-shocked at playing in front of a statewide audience Thursday afternoon on Ohio State University’s campus.
“If you have followed us all this year everything has been huge,” Gentry said. “They have done a fantastic job of blocking out non-sense and negativity. They have done a great job with that of course with our help.”
Gentry said Tuesday he’s seen film of Lutheran East and believes the two teams have similar styles. The game may very well be determined on which team wins the turnover battle, converts free throws and gets defensive stops down the stretch.
The Falcons, unranked in the season’s final Associated Press state poll, like to run, press and be aggressive on both ends of the floor. They average 70 points and allow an average of 60.
Lutheran East, the 2017 Division IV state champion, had a 7-13 record at one point this winter. The Falcons start a freshman, two sophomores and two seniors. The team lost nine players from the state championship team a year ago but has played a fun style of basketball that fits the personnel.
“We’ve got a great group of young men and great coaches,” Lutheran East coach Anthony Jones said. “We work hard to put our guys in the best position to succeed.”
The Falcons are led by senior 6-foot-3 forward Jordan Burge, who averages 19 points. Senior 5-10 guard David Gulley averages 18 points. The starting rotation also includes 6-6 sophomore center Nehemiah Benson (12 ppg.), sophomore 6-4 forward Davyon Adams (5 ppg.) and freshman 6-4 guard EJ Farmer (13 ppg.).
“They’re young and very determined,” Jones said. “They’re very hungry.”
Deer Park, ranked No. 2 in the season’s final AP poll, is led by senior guard Damani McEntire (19.5 ppg.), senior forward Jalen Rose (13.8 ppg.), sophomore guard Mark Wise (16.8 ppg.), junior forward Ibrahima Athie (8.9 pp.g) and sophomore point guard Steven Gentry Jr. (8.5 ppg.) among the projected starting five.
“They’re very athletic,” Jones said of Deer Park. “I think they are very similar to us. They like to pressure. They like to score easy baskets in transition.”
Athie said the Wildcats have had tough practices this week in order to prepare for Thursday.
"We can't underestimate anybody," Athie said. "We just got to come out and play the way we do."