Boys basketball state semifinals: Role players key to success of CJ, Centerville

Chaminade Julienne junior Josiah Bowman (4) fills a backup role for the Eagles. Bowman says, "Whatever I can do to help the team win, that's what's most important to me." Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED
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Chaminade Julienne junior Josiah Bowman (4) fills a backup role for the Eagles. Bowman says, "Whatever I can do to help the team win, that's what's most important to me." Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

Kenyon Owens was sitting on the Chaminade Julienne bench – the place he spends most of his time during basketball games – and thinking he should be on the floor. Tippecanoe guard Ben Knostman was shredding the Eagles with passes and buckets, and Owens’ team had fallen behind by 20 points in the second quarter.

“I was looking at Coach Szabo the whole time in the first quarter and I wanted to go in,” Owens said. “I wanted to guard him. I made eye contact a few times.”

Down 14 at halftime in the Division II regional semifinal, Eagles coach Charlie Szabo announced that Owens would start the second half and guard Knostman. Owens, a junior known more for his play on the football field, took on the challenge and helped the Eagles rally to victory.

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“At one timeout Coach Szabo asked me was I tired, and I couldn’t even answer,” Owens said. “My teammates told me no. They told me you’re not tired. They wanted me to guard him. They all believed in me, so that’s what made me really want to do it.”

In Centerville’s Division I regional semifinal victory over Cincinnati Elder, junior Ryan Keifer came off the bench to be the defensive stopper and hustle-play maker the Elks needed on a poor shooting night. And fellow junior Quinn Hafner came off the bench and made two important 3-pointers in the second half.

In CJ’s regional final victory over Columbus Watterson, junior post Josiah Bowman entered the game in the fourth quarter when Daniel Nauseef picked up his fourth foul. Bowman’s physical presence and two strong moves inside for four points helped keep the Eagles rolling.

“I came in with the mentality to do whatever I can to help my team win and pick up where Danny left off,” Bowman said. “That’s been big for our season – everybody contributing.”

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Those are a few examples of what Szabo, Centerville coach Brook Cupps and players on both teams say are gigantic reasons why both teams are playing in the state tournament at UD Arena this weekend.

Every player has roles. But players like Owens, Keifer, Hafner and Bowman are known as role players. They’re not the leading scorers, they don’t fill up the stat sheet, but they bring energy, set screens, rebound, defend and make the extra pass to the scorer.

“It’s important that we get to a point where we’re not just accepting of our roles but we’re embracing them,” Cupps said. “Not just, ‘OK, I guess if that’s what I have to do.’ That doesn’t work. But everybody almost always starts out there when you tell a kid I don’t want you to shoot threes, I want you to screen and rebound. That’s not what most basketball players want to hear.”

Szabo reminds his players that not everybody can be a shooter, and if scoring is the only thing that makes players happy then there’s only one happy player on the team.

“Having guys accept roles is everything for a team because you get to focus your efforts elsewhere,” he said. “You have to develop roles, you have to have people do different things for you.”

The embracing of roles hasn’t been perfect since the first day of practice for either team. For the Elks, Cupps had to tell senior Jayson Hayes that he would not be a starter this year after starting last season.

“Honestly, in the beginning I was kind of upset,” Hayes said. “But as the year went on, I just bought in. Like no matter who starts, who finishes the game, it’s all about the team at the end of the day. I just put the team before myself and I fully bought into what my teammates were telling me. I feel like me coming off the bench is bringing a different type of energy and vibe to our team.”

For the Eagles, Szabo made a similar change with junior Kylan Tucker. He started a lot of games last year and some early ones this year, but now he comes off the bench.

“Whatever’s the best move for Coach,” Tucker said. “I understand the decision, and obviously it’s working. I got used to it pretty quick.”

Centerville was expected to have a strong season with its three top scorers returning and to be a challenger to Cincinnati Moeller. The Elks beat Moeller in the regional final, but it wasn’t until their second COVID-19 shutdown in January that they found the formula to get them over the top to their first state berth.

“The one in midseason made us all realize it might not come together, so we might as well give it all we had,” Hafner said. “To the finish the season out just doing all we can to help our team win because we don’t know when our last game will be because of COVID.”

CJ has been evolving all season with senior leaders, players who were on JV last year and a freshman leading scorer. “On a lot of teams that would cause issues,” Szabo said. “But these kids have accepted it.”

There is no doubt that these players know their roles.

Tre Johnson, Centerville
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Tre Johnson, Centerville

Tre Johnson starts at center for Centerville: “Run the floor, create space for those guys who can shoot. When I say run the floor, no matter if you think you’re going to get the ball or not, always cut and run it as hard as you can because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Hafner: “When I sub in I kind of facilitate, get guys open, get guys good shots. I’m a pretty good passer and have a pretty good IQ for the game, so I kind of understand how people work, where people’s heads are at. I take the open shot, and it takes the pressure off Gabe or Tom when they’re trying to get open.”

Hayes: “I set screens and crash the boards and play hard defense and get others involved in the offense. And make sure Gabe and Tom and Rich [Rolf] get open for shots.”

Keifer: “My role is to make hustle plays, keep the ball alive and lock down on defense and just bring energy.”

Owens: “I think I’m very important to my team, but, honestly, I just do whatever they want me to do. I just go out there and hustle. I think I bring a lot of energy off the bench too.”

Tucker: “I really like to rebound for this team, try to share the ball a lot, play really good defense and do a little bit of everything.”

Bowman: “Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what’s most important to me. I just want us to keep going as far as we can.”

Szabo summed up the discussion in 13 words: “There’s no good team in history that has not had good role players.”