TOLEDO — Flashback to Dec. 30. Delphos St. John’s was coming off a heartbreaking loss to Crestview and the team sported a 3-3 record and no one was thinking the Blue Jays were state-worthy material.
Since that defeat, the Blue Jays decided to dedicate themselves to getting better each day and take their game to a whole new level.
From that two-point loss at the end of December, the Blue Jays have been nearly impossible to beat, winning their last 18 out of 19 games including a nail-biting 44-43 victory over Mansfield St. Peter’s in the Division IV regional final at the University of Toledo on Friday night.
The win earns Delphos (21-4) a trip to the state semifinals to face Cleveland Heights Lutheran East at the Schottenstein Center at 5:15 p.m. Thursday. Mansfield St. Peter’s ends its year with a 25-2 mark.
This marks the Blue Jays first trip back to state since 2002.
“I keep saying those early defeats at the buzzer and in overtime and those wins in December molded us to who we are today,” said Delphos head coach Aaron Elwer, who went as a player to state in 1998 as a Blue Jay and now has the distinction of trying to coach them to a state title.
“I have never had a group grow up or mature more than the night after we lost to Crestview Dec.30,” Elwer said. “Since then we have won 18 out of 19 and it is pretty incredible. We talk about getting better each day, and I know it is sometimes boring, but they continue to get better each day at whatever their strengths are.”
The winning formula throughout the latter part of the season and the postseason has been simple. Solid defense, solid play from big man Tim Kreeger and clutch shooting by whoever is open and willing to shoot the rock.
Senior Owen Rode, who scored a team-high 16 points, came up with some clutch buckets in the fourth quarter that offset what the Spartans’ smothering defense was doing to Kreeger down low.
“We just went with the game plan and stuck to it,” Rode said. “It all worked out for us. “Coach tells us all the time that we are the most selfless team he has ever had.”
Rode also echoed his coaches sentiment about the team refocusing after the Crestview score.
“After that loss to Crestview, we had to flip a switch and since then we have played our hearts out,” Rode said
Also coming up big in the final stanza was Colin Will, who popped back-to-back treys to help spark the Blue Jays’ offense. As the point guard, Will is more of a distributor than shooter, but he realized it was his turn to step up.
The first of his treys tied the score at 35 with 3:47 left in the game. The Spartans responded with a bucket from Mason Campbell, but Will answered with his second consecutive 3-pointer to put Delphos back up top 38-35 with 2:42 left in the game..
“After I missed my first two I just tried to focus on the rim and just focus on my balance,” Will said. “I was concentrating more and I knew it was a big moment, and I concentrated my hardest to help the team.”
Will and Rode’s shots were even more vital considering the Spartans were constantly double teaming Kreeger in the second half. The senior post player got off to a good start by scoring 12 points in the first half but was limited to two in the final two stanzas.
Although he wasn’t contributing points in the final 16 minutes, Kreeger provided his usual solid defensive outing as well as cleaning up on the boards. Kreeger finished with two blocks and 12 rebounds.
“I think the best thing is that on any given days our guys step up and make plays and the have done it all season long and you couple that with a group that buys in defensively and trust in the system and they give their all for a full 32 minutes and that makes us a tough out,” Elwer said. “That is why we are still standing.”
The final two minutes of the game became a free throw shooting contest and down the stretch the Blue Jays won that battle by converting 5 of 6. Unfortunately for the Pirates, Mansfield struggled from the charity stripe down the stretch hitting 2 of 5 when all points mattered.
We wanted to make things difficult for them,” Elwer said. “We wanted to be tough and physical inside and impose our will for 32 minutes. They didn’t sub much and must have got a little tired on those free throws.
In the second half, Mansfield faltered at the free throw line, going 3 of 11 in the second half.
“Foul shots,” Joseph Jakubick said. “It is not that hard to figure out. … That is what makes the tournament so tough. You have to have some luck on your side.”
Despite his missed free throws, Campbell was the Spartans’ main offensive force and provided big points for the Spartans down the stretch. For the game, Campbell finished with 12 points. Jared Jakubick led the Spartans with 14 points and Tyson Kent finished with 10 points.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on twitter @JoseNogueras1