Despite taking fourth place in the Class 6 Final Four, last weekend was still very much a historic occasion for the Jackson boys basketball team. It was the Indians first trip to state in nearly 90 years, and they nearly took third place after falling to the eventual state champions Staley by 26 points in the semifinals.
Jackson (21-11) held a 27-21 lead over Troy Buchanan (26-6) heading into the fourth quarter of the Class 6 Third Place Game. However, the Trojans outscored the Indians by 14 points in the final eight minutes for a 40-32 win, leaving Jackson to walk away with the fourth-place plaque.
“We played really well for three quarters, and in the fourth quarter we didn’t put the ball in the hole as much as we would’ve liked,” Indians first-year head coach Kory Thoma said. “They hit some shots, but it was pretty much an even game up until that point. We had some balls bounce the wrong way, and they had some go in, but that’s the game of basketball.
“The effort of my kids was tremendous as it always is, but when you come here to the last stage, you’re going to run up against some really good teams. We played really good defense for three quarters, but they outscored us in the fourth.”
Tying the game-high scoring total for the Indians was 6-foot-4 junior guard Blayne Harris, who was the only player for Jackson to score in double figures in the contest with 12 points. Harris also made the only 3-pointer for the Indians as he finished 2-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Pacing Harris in scoring for Jackson was 6-8 senior post Clayton Ernst with nine points, which is the same amount he scored versus Staley. Harris only produced six points against the Falcons, while fellow junior 6-4 forward Judd Thoma had a team-high 10 versus Staley but only six against Troy Buchanan.
Thoma stepped up big defensively in the third-place matchup, though, by tying for a game-high two steals with Jackson 6-1 senior guard Grant Borgfield. Fellow Jackson 6-0 senior guards Kaed Windborne and Steven Schneider also came up with one takeaway apiece.
Schneider, Borgfield and 6-4 junior forward Gavin Holdman, who also recorded a blocked shot with Ernst, combined for five points against Troy Buchanan. Holdman scored six points and had four rebounds, one block and one steal versus Staley.
For his senior year next winter, Holdman will most likely fill one of the three starting roles left by graduating seniors. Other notable returners besides Jackson’s starters from this season in Harris and Thoma include 5-11 junior guard Braedon Thoma and 6-4 sophomore guard Kole Deck.
As for Troy’s scoring attack, 6-1 senior guard Charlie Nett and 6-0 sophomore guard Andrew Moore both produced double-digits with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Trojans 6-3 senior forward Tyler More, who had two steals, paced with seven points followed up by 5-9 junior guard Aiden Vaccaro with six.
In a 68-42 loss in the semifinals, Jackson’s defense allowed Staley (30-2) to produce three double-digit scorers. Falcons 6-9 senior post Cameron Manyawu and 6-2 senior guards Kyan Evans and Jared Lee combined for 47 points by scoring 18, 15 and 14, respectively.
To follow up its near 30-point win over the Indians, Staley handled Kickapoo (23-9) by double-digit points as well via a 49-32 win for the Class 6 State Championship. Evans produced a game-high 16 points, while 6-6 senior forward Kayden Fish paced him with 11.
Even though it was Coach Thoma’s first year at the helm, seniors like Borgfield and Schneider have been playing for him ever since they were little kids. Thoma even coached Schneider all the way back in the second grade, so the players on this year’s team were excited for Kory to take over.
“Coach has done a great job coming in here from the start,” Schneider said. “We set this goal, and we got the community behind us, and we just kept on building the entire year.”
Borgfield added, “Whenever Coach Thoma came in, our mentality was, ‘Defense travels,’ and it definitely did. It helped us win a lot of close games. That got us to state, especially during districts because we just battled it out defensively. That’s credit to Coach Thoma.”
Advancing to state is also a long-overdue turning points for an Indians program that has won eight district titles in the last 11 seasons with only one final-four birth. The seniors agreed that this year’s team was much more like a family with no unnecessary drama compared to the past three seasons.
“Coach Thoma has been coaching us since we were little, and when we heard that he could get the job, we pretty much went and requested him to be our coach,” Schneider laughed.
Borgfield added, “We’re all connected — all the teammates — we all love each other. I feel like the last couple of years, we’ve had some issues. This year, we didn’t have any issues.”