BOWLING GREEN – Evergreen fans have become as resilient as the team they follow.
Most couldn’t watch the Division III district champion Vikings in the regionals because of the crowd restrictions issued by the OHSAA regarding the coronavirus concern.
The masses that were forced to stay behind formed TV viewing parties in numerous locations in Viking country.
Those groups, and the ones who were able to get into the BGSU Stroh Center, went home Wednesday night happy as the Vikes overcame a first quarter deficit to beat Johnstown-Monroe, 64-54, to advance to the regional final for the first time in program history.
Their opponent will be Ottawa-Glandorf, who pounded Colonel Crawford 66-34 in the nightcap at the Stroh.
“From the moment we started, and it was Ethan Loeffler who really made the statement the first time they tried to push us around in the post when he basically threw their guy out of his spot, that we weren’t going to be pushed around,” expressed Viking coach Jerry Keifer.
“I mean we only took five 3-pointers, we hit three and we were the ones who scored from two feet away all night long.”
Johnstown took an 11-7 lead with 3:14 left in the first quarter when Jake Lusk knocked home a corner triple.
From that point the Vikings didn’t give up a Johnstown point for the next four minutes.
During that span, Evergreen rang up the next nine points.
Mason Loeffler’s drive began the rally.
Nate Brighton’s third chance off the offensive glass knotted the game at 11-11 with 2:05 left, then Jack Etue found Ethan Loeffler on a back cut just before the first quarter buzzer that gave the Vikes their first lead of the night at 13-11.
Brighton banged home a 3-pointer 12 seconds into the second period to push the Viking lead to five at 16-11.
After a second Lusk shot from long range to help the Johnnies get back to a one point deficit, the Vikings again went on an extended scoring run.
Brighton’s second triple of the quarter started the spurt.
Mason Loeffler scored the next six on a turnaround jumper, 2-of-2 from the foul line, then a drive down the slot to boost the Evergreen lead to 25-18 before Brighton’s third laser from long range capped the 12-3 burst with 1:10 to go in the half.
Gavin Foe tripled to get Johnstown back within 28-21 at half.
After Ethan Loeffler’s putback 12 ticks into the third quarter to make it 30-21, the teams traded two point plays until the 58 second mark of the third when Derek Foe scored on a rebound to close the gap to 36-31.
Evan Lumbrezer’s ankle-breaking stop and go move got Evergreen back up seven, but Lusk scored with 23 seconds on the clock to make it 38-33 heading into the fourth.
Josh Potter’s layup with 5:45 left brought Johnstown all the way back to a one point margin at 40-39, and forced an Evergreen time out.
“I said that we were just under six minutes away from a chance,” said Keifer. “We talked about giving ourselves a chance to go to the Final Four, to play in a game, a regional final, that gave us that chance. It was a time we had to keep getting the ball inside and getting to the rim.”
The 12-1 Viking blast that followed began innocently enough with two Brighton free throws.
Mason Loeffler’s drive turned into a three-point play and got the Vikings up six, then Lumbrezer found Etue on a halfcourt diagonal pass for a layup to make it 47-39.
Yet another slashing drive by Mason Loeffler, then his feed to Brighton for a three-point play pushed the lead to 52-40 with 3:10 left.
“Mason was really, really good for us tonight,” exclaimed Keifer. “I’ll tell you what he was a man possessed tonight. I haven’t seen him go to the basket like that in a long time. He was really good. He was really good when we needed him to be really good.”
Caleb Schneider tripled for Johnstown, but Etue scored off his own miss and turned it into an “and-one” to keep the lead at 12.
Schneider again hit from outside with 1:23 left to get Johnstown within 55-48, but forced to foul, the Johnnies had to put the Vikings on the line and Evergreen made good, hitting 7-of-8 from the stripe, the last two from CJ Hauk to close out their 24th straight win for a team that Keifer all year has used one word to describe…connected.
“Yeah…tonight we again were connected. We are really connected.”
The Vikes hit 17-of-20 from the line for the night, and shot 22-of-46 from the floor.
Evergreen outrebounded Johnstown by six and were guilty of just six turnovers.
Loeffler scored 29 points to lead the way for Evergreen (25-1). Brighton had 18 and 11 rebounds.
Gavin Foe had 21 for Johnstown who closed out at 19-8.
This is the fourth Viking team who have reached an Elite 8 game.
The 1975 baseball team lost in the regional final to eventual state title winner Bryan; the 2006 softball team; then the 2016 girls basketball team that was nipped in the regional final by Columbus Africentric, who won the state title the next week.
However, the next few days became a waiting game when Thursday the OHSAA declared all tournaments would be postponed until further notice.
For the next 24 hours the Vikings waited in limbo to see if they would indeed have that “chance” to play for a berth in the Final Four.
News came Friday in the form of an email that was sent to those still competing in the tournament that the OHSAA wished to “finish” the tournament after the state-wide suspension of school activities was lifted.
That declaration gave hope to Keifer and his team.
“They are telling us in the memo I received that (the OHSAA) want to have the boys and girls tournaments. They won’t do anything during the three week (suspension) period.
“I’m excited that again there is a chance the kids may have a chance to finish the season and when it all comes down to it, it’s about the kids and their opportunities. I don’t know what the format is going to look like or what kind of practice we will be allowed to have, this ‘vacation’ is not ideal but everyone is in the same boat in that regard.”
Until further notice, the Vikings – like the other seven Division III regional finalists – are in limbo but hopeful.
Reach Joe Blystone at firstname.lastname@example.org