If you don’t play defense you simply don’t play for Scott Elchert and the Jackson Center Tigers. It’s a theory he’s proven over and over…and now he gets a second shot at a state title because of it.
Six weeks ago Scott Elchert stood in the hall outside his locker room at Russia on a losing Friday night and shook his head at me.
He wasn’t in a particularly good mood, his team having just coughed up a coveted opportunity to win at one of the Shelby County League’s toughest road venues. And the shake of his head wasn’t a refusal to own, or talk about, a disappointing defeat. No, Elchert is one of the most accommodating post-game interviews in high school sports.
But if you know the long-time, and now almost generational coach of the Tigers, the head shake, and body language, preceded a predictable comment about a 53-48 loss to a bitter league rival.
“We just quit on our defensive fundamentals,” said Elchert. “We had key individual responsibilities on defense and we just didn’t do them. And when we don’t play defense, we quit making shots, too. Everything revolves around our commitment to defense.”
And indeed, the Tigers had held a commanding 29-18 halftime lead in that game.
They scored the first two points of the second half on an uncontested layup by 6’6″ junior Brady Wildermuth to take a 31-18 lead ten seconds into the third quarter. But then….Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier threw out a wrinkle of his own, Elchert’s Tigers blinked, lost focus, and eventually the lead and the game. It made for a short, and to the point, post-game observation.
“We scored enough points to win,” added Elchert, whose team averaged under 60 points per game this season. “And after this long you know when you come to a place like Russia they’re going to make their run. You know you’re not going match shot for shot, but you can always play defense.”
After a decade of covering Elchert and Jackson Center basketball I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time our post, or pre-game discussions about basketball had centered on defense. Elchert is a predictable sort.
He always sports a fresh, close-cut haircut. He’s always dressed in crisp Brooks Brothers white…and always, always accented with a fashionable orange tie. The man surely has that market cornered!
Five years ago he described, with appreciation, the one-two scoring punch of Andy Hoying and Alex Meyer, the pair that led his 2012 Tigers to the state Final Four. “It’s nice to have their offense,” he said then. “But it doesn’t mean much if you can’t stop someone. You have to play defense.”
Fast forward to the present and he might sound like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, substituting senior Drew Sosby (20 pts. per game) in place of Hoying and Meyer as he prepares for this weekend’s return to the big stage of Value City Arena.
“The man is obsessed about it,” said Sosby a few nights after the Russia game, following Jackson Center’s suffocation of Lehman Catholic in a 67-39 win. Jackson’s JV’s gave up 10 points in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
“If you don’t play defense you just don’t play for him. Everything we do is dictated by our defense. We feed off it. It creates turnovers and turnovers create easy baskets. It gets us into the flow of our game.”
It’s a theory that’s served him well during his long tenure at Jackson, now 14 seasons into his second tour as coach of the Tigers. You can’t lose if the other team can’t score.
It took him to that state tournament appearance in 2012, pushing past a favored Columbus Africentric team in the Division IV semis…a team that held a comfortable lead in the first half, only to see its offense come to a grinding halt in the third and fourth quarters. Elchert’s mantra can do that to you.
And it’s a process that has surprised many this season with success predicated on a predictable offense, Drew Sosby and Brady Wildermuth – who accounted for 6 of every 10 points scored by the Tigers, on average. The critics said you can’t win when only two players score that many points. Shut down Sosby and Wildermuth and you win, right?
Not so fast, Lee Corso. If the other team doesn’t score, they can’t win!
They used that formula to negate a diverse, and impressive Southeastern offense in last week’s regional semi-final, 39-32, stopping the Trojans’ Jake Bertemes, holding him to just 4 points. The same Bertemes had burned Ft. Loramie in the district final just four days previous with 33 points!
Three night’s later they stunned the region’s Cinderella candidate, Yellow Springs, 46-39, again testing the theory with no other plausible options available. Sosby and Wildermuth scored 28 of their 46 points while the Tigers, collectively, played defense.
“The thing is we asked Drew Sosby to stop the best player he’d been asked to defend all season,” said Elchert after the Southeastern game, speaking of Bertemes. “He held him to four points and still scored enough (14 points) to give us a chance to win.”
And after 14 seasons it’s become a highly repeatable game plan for Elchert and the Tigers. You can’t always score, as happened to them in each of their four losses this season (to Anna (twice), Russia, and Marion Local), but you can always play defense. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy on any of those nights!
For a touch of irony, he returns to the Schottenstein Center on Friday to take on the state’s #1-ranked team in Division IV, once-beaten Lincolnview, where again he’ll be the underdog, as he was to Africentric and Berlin Hiland, despite being top-ranked as Jackson Center entered the 2012 Finals.
That too, was a team that didn’t burn the nets. The Tigers wore down Africentric in the second half, holding the Nubians to just 8 points in the fourth quarter to win, 53-50. Against a much taller and talented Berlin team two days later, they couldn’t score and were blown out in the championship game, 68-36. The Hawks, a team that average 6’6″ across their front line, could have easily scored 80 on a less-committed defense.
Case in point about a theory, and the typical Elchert-coached team.
The Tigers at one point in last week’s regional final had a commanding 16-point lead over Yellow Springs. Nothing went right for the Bulldogs at the outset, who went four and a half minutes in the first quarter before scoring. It marked a period of more than 15 minutes, going back to their semi-final win over Southeastern, that Elchert’s defense had held an opponent without a field goal.
But even that dominance became threatened in the second half when Springs trimmed the lead to three…and Jackson suddenly went dormant at the free throw line. Inexplicably, the Tigers shot 8 for 22 at the foul line in the fourth quarter, and 39% for the game.
Everybody afterwards was fixated on the finish, and the end of the game, when the Tigers somehow shook themselves to hit five of their last six at the line to seal the win. Everybody, that is, except Scott Elchert.
Without mentioning it, he knew. It wasn’t the last four minutes that won the game; it was the first four minutes that won the game…the four minutes when Yellow Springs didn’t score. Credit the obsession. Credit the theory.
It’s taking Elchert, and the Tigers, back to another Final Four!