What a basketball season we just witnessed! The sheer number of memorable exploits and achievements accomplished by local teams and players is something this city may not see again for a long time. Lima Central Catholic’s dominant tournament run to a state championship, Lima Senior High’s incredible season that rejuvenated a proud Spartan nation and Lima Perry’s historic, first-ever district title were the most celebrated feats in an amazing year that now becomes part of basketball lore in this community. And add to that the inspiring story of the Sharks, Allen County’s Special Olympics basketball team, bringing home the gold from the Columbus area.
Lima Central Catholic’s success in the last three years is mind boggling. Three consecutive trips to state, including two state championships and one runner-up finish, ranks as the most successful run of basketball this city has ever witnessed. The seniors on this team have left a legacy that will never be forgotten. Any conversation about the Thunderbirds has to begin with their sensational duo of Dantez Walton and Tre Cobbs who were both first-team Division III all-state selections. Their play in the state tournament had the crowds in the Value City Arena buzzing. In their post-game interviews, the T-Bird leaders were quick to spread credit to their teammates. Ethan O’Connor saved his best games for the big stage in Columbus and Nick Taflinger locked down on defense. Thomas Williams and Jamison Bradley developed into a solid pair of support players from the bench.
But the player who I believe flew under the radar the most but was critical to LCC’s success this year, was Josh Dixon. Dixon’s contributions often went unnoticed by the casual fan. Josh set the table for the T-Birds, getting them into right offense and sets. If they needed scoring, he delivered. If they needed a stopper on defense, he responded. The state championship game provides an excellent illustration of his value. Dixon did not score a point in the title game but provided perhaps the most valuable minutes that helped turned the game around. LCC went into the locker room at halftime clinging to a slim one-point lead. Villa Angella-St. Joe’s game plan to shorten the game with a deliberate offense and rely on its gifted young point guard, Gene Higgins, to attack offensively, was working nearly to perfection. Dixon approached coach Frank Kill and asked to guard Higgins in the second half. Higgins, who reminds me of a young Tre Cobbs, was basically shut down in the second half by Dixon’s smothering defense. With Higgins stymied by Dixon, St. Joe’s offense basically collapsed and the door was open for LCC to break the game wide open. Statistics don’t always reveal the whole story.
In the long, rich history of Lima Senior High basketball, there has never been a season like this one. What made the Spartan season so memorable was that it succeeded on two different levels. On the court, expectations were high entering the season and the Spartans delivered, winning a record 29 games and falling just seconds short of their first state championship. And let’s get something straight. That was a truly great Division I state title game. Two dominant teams, loaded with gifted athletes, played at the highest level in a game worthy of a championship final. I see it as the Spartans just ran out of time. Given just a few more seconds, I can envision Xavier Simpson delivering another game winner and being mobbed by his teammates in a scene reminiscent of the one following his dramatic last second dagger that secured a win in the epic LSH-LCC encounter this season.
Off the court the Spartans were just as successful and their theme of “family” began to spread to the entire Lima Senior student body, community and alumni as they embraced this team with passion and pride.
Xavier Simpson’s basketball career in Lima has been magical. He helped lead LCC to a state championship in his sophomore year before transferring to LSH for the opportunity to play for his father. He was the catalyst, leading the Spartans to the regional final game in his junior year and to the state championship game as a senior. This athletically gifted and intelligent young man now rises to take his place among the most elite and decorated basketball players Lima has ever produced.
The Spartans were loaded with talent. Marquevious Wilson and Jarius Ward provided additional fire power on the offensive end and Jaylin Thomas and Demontay Liles brought energy and heart from the bench. In the state final, LSH fell behind early and looked vulnerable. When Thomas reported into the game he immediately responded with five quick points and his play breathed confidence and fire into the Spartans. But what captured this old coach’s appreciation all year was the play of their two athletic post players, Ruben Flowers and Rico Stafford. At 6-foot, 5 inches they were often challenged to compete against athletes much bigger, but they were never intimidated. They dominated taller opposition with their ferocity and passionate play. In the state championship game, Stafford and Flowers took 6-9 Kaleb Wesson, who is the size of an aircraft carrier and is committed to play at Ohio State University, completely out of his game. These two “warriors” epitomized the physical and mental toughness that was a hallmark of the Lima Senior team all season.
Giving coaches their due
When LCC’s Frank Kill and Lima Senior’s Quincey Simpson were hired as head coaches there were some doubters in the crowd. Kill had to follow in the footsteps of a successful coach and some felt Simpson’s AAU coaching experience would not prepare him for the high school game. The doubters were dead wrong. In six seasons, Kill has amassed a 143-18 record that includes two state championships. Simpson has rejuvenated the Spartan program, winning 56 games and directing a pair of long tournament runs in his two years at the helm. And while it’s true that both coaches have been blessed with a stable of talented players, the fact is, coaching talent does not insure success. The tournament trail is littered with teams, loaded with gifted players, that fell far short of their potential.
Coach Quincey Simpson with his arm around his son Xavier, consoling him, after their heartbreaking loss in the state championship game. It was the last time the Simpsons would be in the role of coach-player after a lifetime of a father teaching his son the game of basketball.
Aaron Hutchins, T-Bird assistant coach, cutting down a piece of the state championship net. Nearly 25 years ago Hutchins led an undefeated LCC team to the state title game just days after being named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball. They lost a heartbreaker on a last second shot. Does that sound familiar? Hutchins has been a valuable asset to the program and it was beautiful to see him finally getting the opportunity to share in the joy of winning the big one in Columbus.
LCC assistant coach Mike O’Connor, hugging his youngest son, Ethan, following their state championship win. Mike is stepping down this year after volunteering 25 years on the T-Bird staff. Between Mike, his sons Ty, Aiden and Ethan, and his daughter Rachell, the O’Connor’s can count eight state championships. Mike will be missed.
The smiles on the faces of the LSH players at their homecoming rally Sunday night just 24 hours after their tears following a difficult setback in the title game. The highlight of the rally was an eloquent coach Simpson sharing his vision for the future of the Spartan program. His remarks are on social media and if you want an insight into the motivation behind coach Q’s commitment to assisting all the students at Lima Senior High, you need to take a look at the video.
This is my last column for the season. When I retired from coaching, Jim Krumel asked me to try my hand at a column. Six years and nearly one hundred columns later I’m shocked to be still writing. Thanks to all the people at The Lima News who help me with this and especially to you, our readers.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at email@example.com.