By Andy Close
ST. MARYS – The message was sent loud and clear Saturday. Elk County Catholic may be the No. 1 seed when the District 9 Class A playoffs begin, but Johnsonburg is still the team to beat.
Cole Peterson scored 28 points as the Rams (21-3) made an emphatic statement with a 59-41 win over Elk County Catholic to capture their second-straight AML title.
“These guys like to win,” said Johnsonburg coach Bill Shuey. “It wouldn’t matter if they were playing for a popsicle, they like to play their best.”
Saturday’s game might not have been their very best, but it was more than good enough.
Elk County Catholic (21-3) was at the mercy of Peterson, who scored all 28 of his points in the final three quarters, for most of the game.
The senior guard showed off his full repertoire of skills, scoring in the lane, from beyond the arc and converting both three and four-point plays.
Consecutive three’s in the second quarter from Peterson keyed a 22-5 run and gave Johnsonburg a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“They do a lot of special things on the floor,” Shuey said of Peterson and fellow senior guard Cameron Grumley. “At times they try and do too much. They recognized tonight with balanced scoring that kind of takes the pressure off.”
By contrast, Elk County Catholic coach Aaron Straub didn’t pull any punches when talking about his team’s play after the first quarter.
“That was the difference in the game,” he said simply. “From that point on we played very poor. We were very timid from the start of that run on and I’m not exactly sure why.”
After taking a 14-10 lead after the first quarter keyed by a pair of Mitchell Struble three’s, the Crusaders, who had their 16-game winning streak snapped, scored just 13 points in the second and third quarters combined.
“I think our defense caused some turnovers, which got us into our fast-break,” Shuey said.
And in the fast-break is where Peterson and Grumley are their most lethal.
They scored 17 of the Rams’ first 19 points of the second half, extending the lead to 20 by the end of the third quarter on a four-point play from Peterson.
“Johnsonburg is an excellent team with two outstanding players,” Straub said. “They’re very well-coached and they present a lot of problems. You have to play well to beat them and I can’t imagine from the end of the first quarter on we could play much worse, flat out.”
ECC attempted to rally in the fourth quarter, with consecutive three’s from Cory Huff and Struble cutting the lead to 11, but Johnsonburg never let the lead slip below double figures.
Huff, Elk County Catholic’s leading scorer, was limited to just eight points.
“I was really impressed with the way Zane Hodgdon played defensively,” Shuey said. It was Hodgdon and Kevin Benson who were primarily responsible for Johnsonburg’s solid interior defense on Huff.
Both teams now turn their attention to the Class A playoffs. Despite sporting identical records and Johnsonburg beating them in three out of four meetings, it will be the Crusaders that have the No. 1 seed.
“The teams at the bottom are playing very well,” Straub said. “If we don’t play better than we did tonight, we won’t win — period. That’s just the way it is.”
Johnsonburg, meanwhile, is locked into the No. 4 seed.
Cole Peterson 8-7-8-28, Cameron Grumley 6-0-0-13, Christian Cherry 2-4-4-9, Kevin Benson 2-0-0-4, Zane Hodgdon 1-0-0-2, Brian Feronti 1-0-0-3, Totals 20-11-12-59
ELK COUNTY CATHOLIC (41)
Ian Herzing 1-0-0-3, Mitchell Struble 4-2-3-14, Brandon Schlimm 2-0-0-6, Ivan Wortman 0-1-2-1, Cory Huff 3-1-2-8, Dan Singer 0-3-4-3, Colton Lecker 2-2-2-6, Andrew Gebauer 0-0-0-0, Luke Kraus 0-0-0-0, Totals 12-9-13-41
Johnsonburg 10 22 15 12- 59
Elk Co. Catholic 14 5 8 14-41
Three-point FGs: Johnsonburg – Peterson 5, Grumley 1, Cherry 1, Feronti 1; Elk County Catholic – Struble 4, Schlimm 2, Huff 1, Herzing 1