KETTERING — As disjointed and ugly as Russia’s scrum with Jackson Center was Friday night, Dave Borchers would have been proud no matter the outcome.
His Russia boys basketball team, the one he molded over the past three years, the one he knew could make it to the Division IV state tournament, the one he was taken away from in October, honored his memory with the heart they played with, the defense they committed to and the way they played for each other.
“It wasn’t a thing of beauty that’s for sure,” said Spencer Cordonnier, the interim head coach who stepped in to lead Borchers’ team after he died as the result of a car wreck on Oct. 14. “(Guys) flying all over the place, nobody getting any offensive rhythm going. It was clean, nothing dirty.”
And for everyone in Russia blue, the Raiders’ final margin of victory in Friday’s regional championship game, 27-25, had a beauty to it. While medals and the trophy were being presented at Trent Arena, they weren’t thinking about how they had won despite scoring only seven points in the second half and one in the fourth quarter. They thought about how this season brought them all closer together.
They cheered and agonized through every up and down, then held their breath as Jackson Center (25-2) had one final shot that could have sent the Tigers to state instead. The Tigers inbounded from in front of their bench with six seconds left to Camdyn Reese. He dribbled to the left and drew Russia’s Benjamin York toward him. Reese passed to an open Nolan Fark in the corner.
Fark shot from behind the three-point line as York flew past him. The ball bounced off the back of the rim, Russia’s Hayden Quinter got his hands on the rebound, got sandwiched by two Tigers and the final horn sounded as the ball bounced out of bounds. It didn’t matter that the Raiders shot 31.3% and missed five of six free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
The celebration was on for Borchers’ team.
“It’s everything you could ask for,” Raiders senior guard Zane Shappie said. “Senior year, packed house, big place, louder than heck, close game. These are the nights you get up for when you’re little and go outside and shoot for. This is what you go to practice for every day.”
The Raiders (24-3) are headed to state for the second time and get to practice this week for their next game — an 8:30 p.m. Friday state semifinal at UD Arena against defending champion Richmond Heights (27-0).
To get there, the Raiders started fast Friday, using a 15-0 run to lead 15-4. They led 20-10 at halftime, and 26-18 after three quarters. But the Tigers, long revered for their defense under head coach Scott Elchert, inched back in the fourth quarter on a night when they shot 21.6%. Felix Francis’ free throw with 18 seconds left was Russia’s only point in the fourth.
“A bunch of nerves,” said Francis, who missed the front end of a one-and-one but got a second chance because of a lane violation. “Coach talked to us at the beginning of the year and said just be thankful to be in this position, thankful to have this opportunity. So I was thankful for it and just relaxed. Take a deep breath. And the rest is history.”
For Jackson Center, the loss was more than the usual heartbreak of a season ending. They too had been playing to honor the memory of someone. Former player T.J. Esser, who graduated in 2019 and stayed involved in the program, coming to open gyms, practices and games, died unexpectedly on a golf course in August. The team wore socks with T.J. and his No. 4 written on them.
“He was a gym rat,” Elchert said. “That’s one thing that’s made our program so strong. The brotherhood of our former players is off the charts.”
The loss also meant the final game for Elchert, who coached the Tigers for 23 years, including the past 18, and took the Tigers to final fours in 2012 and 2016.
“I consider myself an extremely blessed and grateful man for having the opportunity to coach such great players, work with such unbelievable assistant coaches, administration and parents,” Elchert said. “This loss really stings for a lot of reasons, mainly because I feel for my group of seniors that had a dream, and they missed it just by one step.”
Elchert said after the final loss of his previous 22 seasons, his thoughts have turned to the next season about 15 minutes into the bus ride home.
“I don’t know where my thoughts,” he said, “are going to go tonight on that bus ride home.”
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