By Dana Harding
When you tug on Superman’s cape, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when he starts doing Superman things.
On a night when his team needed him most, Fair Grove’s Garrett Kesterson responded in spades, pouring in 30 points to lead the Eagles to a thrilling, 66-58 victory over Springfield Catholic in the Class 3 District 11 Championship.j
According to Fair Grove head coach Tim Brown, though, Kesterson’s heroics are nothing new.
“That’s just Garrett,” Brown said. “He’s one of the best guards in the state, and that’s what we expect from him. Last year, coming into the district tournament, he got injured and played with a bad back the whole postseason. This year, he got to put his cape on and play Superman. He did that for us tonight.”
Stellar as Kesterson’s game was on both ends of the court, Fair Grove Freshman Cole Gilpin certainly made his case for a suitable sidekick with 13 fourth-quarter points.
Brown had quick praise for senior leaders and freshman upstarts, alike.
“We played seven guys, and every single one of them played huge,” Brown said. “We had a freshman that stepped up and played big in his first district championship tonight. That goes back to that senior leadership we have. When they set the bar as high as they have, everyone else has to follow.”
Kesterson and Fair Grove got off to a somewhat pedestrian start, struggling to find room to operate.
Hounded by Catholic’s Charlie O’Reilly and Brett Maes, primarily, Kesterson spent most of the evening playing through contact and making repeated trips to the free throw line, where he converted 12 of 14 attempts.
When he did have decent looks at the basket, the senior sharpshooter converted. Two of Kesterson’s four 3-pointers in the game opened the first- and second-half possessions.
“I knew Coach put me in as a leader,” Kesterson said. “So, I knew I’d have to do everything I could to help my team, whether it’s getting rebounds, defensive stops, whatever it is to help my team. Luckily I was feeling it tonight, but I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates for setting me up.”
From the opening tip, both teams seemed to be fighting through nerves. While the Irish failed to score a point in the first four minutes of play, Fair Grove wasn’t exactly lighting the court on fire with only five points to its name.
Brown attributed the slow start to both teams recognizing the championship moment, and the fact Catholic upset the Eagles 59-52 on Valentine’s Day.
“I know our kids were happy when we got a chance to play [Catholic] again,” Brown said. “They were really excited when they beat us, and we haven’t lost on our home court in two years”
“There’s definitely nerves in an atmosphere like this. What more could you ask for in a district championship game when people are hanging from the rafters. This is what high school basketball is all about.”
Fair Grove ended the sluggish first quarter with a 9-6 lead; however, things abruptly changed when 6’7” Evan Fullerton picked up his second foul to start quarter number two and headed to the bench.
Without Fair Grove’s senior rim-protector on the court, the Irish quickly took advantage. 6’7” Ian Cochran keyed an 18-6 run to give Catholic a 24-15 lead.
Kesterson scored 5 of the next 8 points to cut the Catholic lead to a single point at halftime, then quickly dropped a pair of 3s to start the second half.
With 5:32 left in the third, Fair Grove took the lead for the final time en route to a 43-39 end-of-quarter score.
What made the difference?
Defense, for one.
“Our kids guarded,” Brown said. “Our kids guarded in a way that we knew we were capable of. We haven’t done that for long spurts all the time, but here as of late … we refocused. We’ve paid our dues to get here. It took us three tries to get our first [district championship], and we weren’t going to let someone come in here and win their first time.”
On offense, the Eagles were just as effective.
Kesterson and Gilpin accounted for 20 of Fair Grove’s 23 points in the fourth quarter, with the freshman connecting on a pair of late-game 3-pointers to help seal the win.
Catholic’s Ian Cochran and Jake Branham attempted a late rally with a combined 14 points in the quarter; however, the Catholic comeback fell short.
According to Irish head coach Tony Armstrong, it wasn’t difficult to spot the game’s difference-maker.
“They gave us a problem, because they have Kesterson on their team,” Armstrong said. “That’s the problem. He made some unbelievably tough shots, and we knew he would. We missed some easy shots tonight, missed some free throws and we got hammered on the boards. We were just outmanned.”
Cochran led the Irish with 19 points, and was joined in double figures by O’Reilly’s 11.
For an Irish team without any seniors, the future might not be now … but it’s ridiculously close.
Regarded as a dark horse heading into the district tournament, Catholic’s lineup showed it’s more than ready to contend in the district and beyond. The Irish finish the season at 20-8.
“We’ve just got to get stronger, physically,” Armstrong said. “Since the first of January, we’ve probably improved thirty percent. We only need to improve five to seven percent, and we’re going to be a load, but that last five to seven percent is ten times more difficult.”
“I’m proud of them … best season Catholic’s had in 30 years.”
Next up for Fair Grove (24-5) is a sectional matchup against Lamar on March 1 at Willard High School. The Tigers downed Mt. Vernon 63-57 in the District 12 Championship.
Game notes … 2013 was the last time Catholic and Fair Grove met up in district play, a 72-60 Irish victory. The two teams have split the postseason series 7-7, overall, with 1959 the most recent championship matchup. Fair Grove holds an overall series lead of 65-50 since the series began in 1941.
Fair Grove – 66, Springfield Catholic – 58
Fair Grove 09 14 20 23 — 66
Catholic 06 18 15 19 — 58
Fair Grove scoring: Garrett Kesterson – 30, Cole Gilpin – 18, Garrett Potter – 8, Evan Fullerton – 5, Steven Huskey – 3, Dalton Cloyd – 2
Catholic scoring: Ian Cochran – 19, Charlie O’Reilly – 11, Jake Branham – 9, Mike Manzardo – 7, Lincoln Jones – 5, Wallace Squibb – 5, Brett Maes – 2