The Division III state semifinal matchup between Villa Angela-St. Joseph and Columbus Eastmoor Academy is the very definition of two teams coming from opposite ends of the basketball spectrum.
VASJ (21-4) is in its third straight final four and is seeking the program’s sixth state championship. Columbus Eastmoor (17-11) is in the state tournament for the first time in school history.
The Vikings – the No. 1 team in the final AP state poll – are a senior-dominated team featuring size, strength and athleticism in the paint with Kansas recruit Carlton Bragg (6-foot-10) and Northwestern signee Dererk Pardon (6-9) as well as physical guard Brian Parker. The Warriors have a roster loaded with freshmen and whose strength lies on the perimeter as the tallest player in uniform is 6-5.
Eastmoor coach James Miranda said during a conference call on Monday that this is a classic “David vs. Goliath” matchup, and he and his team are approaching the game with great respect for VASJ, but also with great excitement to be in the state semifinals.
“We are going to put our Cinderella shoes on and see what happens,” Miranda said. “This is March Madness. We are excited to be here, and our goal all season has been to try to win a state title.”
Jalen Lewis is a senior guard who leads the Warriors with 17 points per game. Eastmoor guards Kyle Oglesby and Xavier Holston-Sims are the other two senior captains. Oseratin Onaiwu is the only other double-digit scorer on the team at 10 points per game. There are five freshman on the Warriors roster, with several seeing meaningful playing time.
For VASJ, the Vikings return to the Schottenstein Center for a third consecutive March. VASJ won the D-IV title in dominating fashion in 2013 and lost in the D-III championship to Lima Central Catholic in 2014. The Vikings have won five state championships in boys basketball, and are trying to become the first team in Ohio history to win a title in each of the four divisions.
VASJ point guard Mo Johnson is an extension of Coach Babe Kwasniak on the floor and was named all-NCL and all-district for his floor game despite not averaging big points. Senior guard Simon Texidor hit seven 3s in a regional semifinal against Massillon Tuslaw and will be one of the best shooters in Columbus regardless of division for the state tournament weekend.
Bragg (5 blocks in regional final) and Pardon (20 rebounds vs. Ursuline) give the Vikings a presence that Eastmoor admittedly does not have in the paint.
“We need to knock down shots and play our tempo because our strength is not going to be matching them inside,” Miranda said. “We have good guard play and we get the ball to the right guys most of the time. That will have to continue.”
Eastmoor will have to be on top of its game to slow down a VASJ team that won its two regional games by a combined 61 points after demolishing three opponents in the sectional/district rounds.
Kwasniak said the tight loss in the state title game a year ago served as motivation for his team, but the fact that he has eight senior captains who have been to Columbus the previous two years and have played an elite schedule that included several nationally ranked teams should have them more than prepared for the big stage.
“There is no substitute for experience and these guys have seen it all, between the highest of highs in 2013 to the lowest of lows losing last year, and all the great teams we have played this season, they are ready for this time of year,” Kwasniak said.
“It is a very intelligent group, a special group that sometimes I just get out of their way and try not to over-coach a whole lot. They are bigger, faster, stronger and that has to do with hard work and getting in the weight room and individually becoming better players so they can do something special as a team. I am excited for them to have this opportunity a third straight year.”