St. John’s starting senior center Tim Kreeger, here facing a double team versus Van Wert, will be tasked with being a big cog in the Blue Jays’ Division IV State semifinal Thursday afternoon at The Schott versus Cleveland Heights Lutheran East. (DHI Media/Jim Metcalfe)
St. John’s starting senior center Tim Kreeger, here facing a double team versus Van Wert, will be tasked with being a big cog in the Blue Jays’ Division IV State semifinal Thursday afternoon at The Schott versus Cleveland Heights Lutheran East. (DHI Media/Jim Metcalfe)

DELPHOS — When the St. John’s boys basketball team started its 2016-17 season on Dec. 9, it opened with two losses to Midwest Athletic Conference foes Versailles and Fort Recovery around a victory over long-time rival Elida.

After a tough home loss to Crestview on Dec. 30, the Blue Jays stood at 3-3.

A win over Minster at home on Jan. 6 touched off a 10-game winning string and they haven’t looked back, with only a difficult loss at Marion Local on Feb. 10 the only blemish.

That is one reason the 21-4 Jays are playing the 5:15 p.m. Thursday Division IV State semifinal against Cleveland Heights Lutheran East at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus.

This will be the Blue Jays’ first State game since winning the title in 2002 and first under head coach Aaron Elwer, who was part of a State runner-up team in 1998.

One major reason was the intangible of team chemistry, according to the coach.

“This is one of the best — if not the best — teams I’ve ever had with that, with their ability to really pull for each other and root for each other,” Elwer began. “We did have a hiccup to start the year but when we got on that 10-game winning streak in January and February, this team really came together.

“We started out the year with high expectations — from day 1 we talked about the goals and accomplishments we wanted for this team — and people wondering how good could the Blue Jays be this season. We took all the experience we gained the last two seasons, learned from it and moved on.”

Another determining factor for this flock of Jays was simple tradition.

“St. John’s boys basketball has a lot of tradition and the school and community really got behind this team, especially as it turned the corner,” Elwer continued. “I am so excited for this opportunity for our players, our school and our community to be playing in this game.

“As I said before, one of the reasons I came back to St. John’s 10 years ago was to take them to State again and I’m pleased that it’s happening.”

Still, Elwer makes no bones about the major challenge his team faces in the 18-9 Falcons of head coach Anthony Jones.

“First of all, that record is misleading. They have played a very difficult schedule, facing teams that are at State this week like Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph and Lakewood St. Edward’s,” Elwer continued. “The first thing that you notice is their extreme athleticism and overall team speed; it’s better than we’ve faced all year. They have the ability to apply intense ball pressure on the defensive end.

“On the offensive end, they have the ability to make plays themselves or create opportunities for their teammates. They will present a difficult challenge but as I tell our players all the time, difficult challenges present chances for big opportunities.”

The Jays will trot out a starting five of 6-8 senior center Tim Kreeger (17.2 points, 6.9 boards, 2.3 blocks, 2.0 assists per game), 6-1 senior forward Owen Rode (8.6 points, 5.0 boards, 2.1 assists), 6-0 senior guard Josh Warnecke (2.3 points, 2.7 rebounds), 5-10 junior point guard Collin Will (3.4 points, 2.4 assists) and 6-4 sophomore forward Jared Wurst (10 points, 5.1 rebounds).

Elwer’s 8-man rotation brings 6-0 senior guard Robby Saine (5.1 points), 5-11 junior Connor Hulihan (4.1) and 6-0 junior Richard Cocuzza (3.6) off the bench.

The Jays average 55.1 points and 28.2 boards per game, while giving up 43.9 points and 20.8 rebounds.

“I’m sure there will be emotions and such when we get in the game and first-time jitters for these kids; I’m also sure we will likely have to face an early punch by them,” Elwer added. “The key is not to let the emotions and atmosphere take us out of our game and overwhelm us, nor can we let that happen when they apply the pressure we know we’ll face. These guys have a great ability to trust the game plan the coaches give them and put it into action on the court; they will have to do the same this week and not get away from that.

“We will continue to watch film and prepare a scouting report to the best of our ability and see what happens.”

Jones also spoke about the rugged schedule his Falcons faced even as they had to meld new players in during the season.

“We have faced all kinds of good competition in all four divisions. We’ve had an up and down season record-wise because of it, as well as the fact we played the first 11 games without some transfers that were sitting out,” Jones recalled. “It took us a while to get acclimated to each other; you think it happens in practice but the lack of game experience together shows up in competition and that’s what happened to us. We had five of our losses by two points or less. I would say that it wasn’t until toward the end of the season — game 20 — that things really came together.

“We had to come from behind in both our Regional games and won the Malvern game in overtime; all those close games we lost earlier, we learned from them to win in the tournament. The thing is, I have spoken to colleges at Division I, II and III for about seven of my kids; they have made offers but there have been no commitments yet.”

He specifically mentioned 6-8 senior Justin Motley, 6-3 junior Jordan Burge and 6-3 junior Keandre Graves as players on the college watch list.

“We had a film exchange yesterday and I haven’t seen a lot of film on St. John’s but two things stand out to me,” Jones added. “They have a 6-8 kid (Kreeger) that is a paint presence on both ends of the floor, particularly blocking shots defensively, and they shoot the three with regularity and well. Obviously, containing the big guy in the paint is one focus for us, while making sure we get out on the shooters and challenge those shots is the other. We want to keep everything in front of us.”