By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Years and years of sweat, hard work and dreams have come down to this.
The state finals. Against one of the state’s most storied programs.
Springfield Catholic will play for a state championship at 2:40 p.m. Friday at JQH Arena. Standing across the way: Vashon, winners of 10 state championships all-time.
“It’s something I’ve grown up imagining myself doing,” said Catholic senior Charlie O’Reilly of being in the state finals. “Playing a team like Vashon, we’re excited to get the opportunity to play against them and play for No. 1 in the state.”
The Irish are in the state finals for the first time since 1984 thanks to a dominating 71-41 win over Concordia St. Paul Lutheran on Thursday night in the Class 3 semifinals.
O’Reilly and Jake Branham scored 21 apiece, and fellow senior guard Michael Manzardo added 19 points.
O’Reilly scored 10 of his 21 points in the first quarter.
“Any of us can get hot on any given night,” O’Reilly said. “That’s the beauty of this team. We’re all tremendous basketball players and tremendous people, and we all trust each other.
“My teammates trusted me to get the ball early on and I was able to put it away a couple times. But anyone can do that on any given night for us.”
The Irish put the game away early.
They led 20-5 after the first quarter and 33-13 by halftime.
The Saints shot 5-for-25 from the field in the first half (0-for-10 from 3-point range) and 15-for-54 overall. They finished 7-for-14 at the free throw line and 4-for-24 on 3-point attempts.
“We didn’t shoot well from the free throw line – we’re usually pretty good from there – and we shoot a lot of 3s, and make them,” said Saints coach Monte Pitsch. “It wasn’t a good day, all around.”
Zach Howell’s putback midway through the first quarter gave the Irish a 15-4 lead. Lutheran never got back within single digits.
“This group has done a great job of being extremely unselfish and growing during their time here,” said Catholic coach Dustin Larsen. “That’s been the great thing: the balance of this team. They truly care for each other and play as a group. When they put their mind to it, they can accomplish just about anything.”
Both Catholic and Lutheran were making their first appearance in the state final four since 1984.
The outcome snapped Lutheran’s 27-game winning streak. The Saints hadn’t lost since dropping their season opener to Marshall by two points (66-64).
“Our goal, all year long, was to get to the state championship,” Branham said. “We came out to try to jump on (Lutheran) early. That’s what we did. Charlie got hot early, Mike (Manzardo) got hot in the second half. It was just a great team win.”
On Friday, the Irish will be playing for the third state championship in program history. They won the Class 1A state in 1984 (40-37 over Clopton) and won the Class M title in 1959 as St. Agnes (60-48 over Maryville).
Vashon recently won back-to-back Class 4 state titles in 2016 and 2017.
Catholic will not only have a hometown crowd on its side, but court familiarity as well.
Thanks to their participation in the Blue and Gold Tournament and the Tournament of Champions, Friday’s contest will mark the ninth time this season that Catholic has played at JQH Arena.
By comparison, the Irish only played seven games in their own gym this season.
“It’s just anxiousness and you’re excited,” Larsen said. “These guys have done a tremendous job of being excited and focused at the same time. They’ve had fun this week and come in ready to go.”
Added O’Reilly: “It’s great getting to play in front of our hometown in a tournament like this, but also on a court we’re familiar with.”
Springfield Catholic 71, St. Paul Lutheran (Concordia) 41
Lutheran 5 8 17 11 — 41
Catholic 20 13 22 16 — 71
Lutheran (27-2 overall) – Dobrivoj Andrejic 16, Elijah Muehler 13, Micah Lemmons 5, Justin Griffith 3, Aaron Kirby 2, Vlado Vretenicic 2
Catholic (29-3 overall) – Charlie O’Reilly 21, Jake Branham 21, Michael Manzardo 19, Will Morrison 6, Zach Howell 2, Wallace Squibb 2