By Michael Rich
Olentangy Orange senior guard Colin Shepherd didn’t think it was possible two years ago, but Friday’s 60-49 victory over visiting Worthington Kilbourne gave the Pioneers a share of the OCC-Capital boys basketball championship.
“It’s a special moment for this group – especially for the seniors,” Shepherd said. “Our coaches kept telling us to keep fighting.”
The Pioneers opened 19-4 in the first six and a half minutes and held off a couple of Kilbourne comeback attempts before a 9-0 run late in the fourth ultimately put things out of reach.
Orange connected on four threes in the opening minutes, including a pair by Shepherd that led to an 8-0 lead, before fellow seniors Adam Rieger and Josh Smith followed suit with respective threes of their own. The Pioneers led 19-6 after one.
“We wanted to get a win for the seniors and the fact that we lost to them the first time — we were ready for them,” Smith said. “We had them scouted.”
Shepherd led the Pioneers (18-4, 12-2) with 21 points. Smith added 12 points.
“I think we’re capable of that every game,” Shepherd said about the hot start.
Orange avenged a 59-46 loss at Kilbourne Jan. 8, which was its first league loss. The other came a week later to the team that shares the title, New Albany, which beat Mount Vernon Friday night to hold up its end.
“We came into that game thinking that when we lost to St. Charles (Dec. 23), it was just a fluke,” Smith said. “We just weren’t prepared for them — we thought they were a middle-of-the-pack team. And they came out and jumped on us and we knew we had to do the same thing (Friday night).”
It’s been a steadfast improvement for the Pioneers since the 2013-14 season in which they went 3-20 and finished last in the league. Last year, Orange went 10-13 and tied Kilbourne for fourth with a 7-7 record in league play.
“It was hard my sophomore year — three wins is never fun for anybody,” Shepherd said. “We just kept working in the offseason and there was never a break in our work — whether it was with the coaches or without them — there was never a break. We just knew that’s what we had to do.”
The win over Kilbourne not only gives Orange its fourth league title, but it sets the school record for wins.
“It’s a just a great turn-around,” Smith said. “It feels good to know that we all bought into the culture and played unselfish. We just knew that we’d rather win playing for each other than lose playing for ourselves.”
“They could have quit a hundred different times,” Pioneers coach Anthony Calo said. “It was hard on me, too. The cool thing about this is that they made a commitment to stick together and fight for each other … and that’s pretty rare in this world.”
Senior post Grant Gossard contributed 10 points, seven blocks, six rebounds and four assists to help the Pioneers.
“I’m absolutely excited to come from where we started a couple of years ago with this team to where we are now,” Gossard said. “(Two years ago) I wanted to get it over with and now I don’t want it to end.”
Ben Delay led the Wolves with 13 points, all in the middle two periods, as Kilbourne closed within six late in the third before Orange closed the period with a 44-36 lead.
Matthew Gierhart had 11 points, six rebounds and three steals and Josh Stoner scored nine points, all in the second half for the Wolves.
Stoner hit a three late in the fourth quarter to cut the Kilbourne deficit to six, but Orange responded with a 9-0 run, which started with a Shepherd layup that he converted into a three-point play with 3:11 to go.
Kilbourne closed within nine points in the second quarter on a basket and two free throws on consecutive possessions by Isaiah Young. He finished with six points.
Shepherd closed the half with baskets on back-to-back possessions to increase the Orange lead to 34-21 at the break.
“We got sloppy for sure — it was like open gym at times,” Calo said. “We knew coming in that it would be tight. Our mentality all game was (on the) next play. We had to refocus a bunch.”
Senior Evan Lewis finished with nine points and Nathan Matthews added five points for the Pioneers.
With the regular season now in the rear-view mirror, Orange turns its attention to the tournament. The Pioneers host Groveport-Madison in the second round Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.
Also: Franklin Heights 56, Big Walnut 52; Gahanna Christian at Delaware Christian, late.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.