Steve Blackledge
Steve Blackledge

A seven-time Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association writer of the year, Blackledge spent the final 34 years of a four-decade career as the chief prep beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch. A Delaware, Ohio native, Blackledge graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1982 with degrees in journalism and communications. He served as sports editor of the Wilmington News-Journal for three-plus years. He also worked at the Lake County Telegraph and the Delaware Gazette. In addition to the prep beat, Blackledge has covered the Browns, Indians, Reds, Bengals, Columbus Crew and various Ohio State sports.

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Six-foot-seven Toledo recruit Javan Simmons scored 18 points and Marquette signee Sean Jones added 17 as Gahanna completed a season sweep of Pickerington North to capture the OCC Ohio Division title.

Pickerington, OH – Since it’s considered in poor taste to celebrate a championship on an opponent’s home floor, Gahanna’s players and coaches made the short bus ride home Friday night before cutting down nets and mugging for photos with the trophy.

Although we weren’t there to witness it, the scene likely was rather tame in comparison to others. While Gahanna’s 52-41 win over Pickerington North for an outright Ohio Capital Conference Ohio Division title certainly was impressive, these Lions are all about business and realize they have much bigger fish to fry over the next four weekends.

“Sure, it feels good to beat a really good team and win a third straight league title, but we’re not anywhere near done yet,” said 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior center Javan Simmons, who had himself a monster game against the undersized Panthers. “We want three more (titles), but it’s a one-game-at-a-time approach for us. That’s just the way we are.”

Fourth-ranked in the latest Associated Press Division I state poll, Gahanna (20-2, 10-0) will enter Central District tournament play as the No. 2 seed behind Pickerington Central. The Lions are tired of talking about how their 2020-21 season ended with a surreal 45-44 loss to Westerville Central in the regional final. The image of Tasos Cook hitting that last-second, half-court shot will be etched in the minds of players, coaches and fans around central Ohio for decades to come.

Gahanna’s Javan Simmons finds room to operate in the lane.

While many of the players are the same, Gahanna is every bit as formidable – maybe even more so – than last year’s 22-3 squad. In anticipation of another deep run, coach Tony Staib assembled a top-notch schedule of diverse opponents that has yielded wins over the likes of Cincinnati Taft, Lyndhurst Brush, Medina and Westerville North and narrow defeats to Pickerington Central and defending Division II state champion and No. 1-ranked Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. The Lions came in outscoring their opposition by an average margin of 63-41.5, with only seven teams able to top 50 points.

The season sweep of eighth-ranked, fourth-seeded Pickerington North (18-3, 8-2) followed a similar script. The first game was 53-42.

“Yes, it was a very carbon copy game, but there were some different twists along the way,” Staib said. “Pickerington North is a great team that just keeps scrapping and scrapping, and we knew it would come down to the end again and it did.”

Be there when the cannon blasts to celebrate a Columbus Blue Jackets goal amid all the exciting National Hockey League action at Nationwide Arena.

Gahanna’s inside prowess with 6-7 bookends Simmons and Josh Whiteside complemented by magnificent guard Sean Jones, again, proved too much to handle for North, which features five starters between 6-0 feet and 6-2.

North’s Dior Conners (5) shoots over Gahanna’s Eljae Deas (1).

The Lions went inside early and often on the way to an 11-2 lead. Strangely enough, it took nearly four minutes for Jones, who came in averaging 19.9 points per game, to get off his first shot – and that was a dunk in transition after a steal.

“I just play the game the way I’m supposed to play it and let it flow,” said Jones, a Marquette signee many expect to contend for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball Award. “I trust my guys. We knew we had an advantage inside and we tried to establish that. When’s it my turn, I know I’ll be ready to turn it up.”

Simmons had three of his four blocked shots in the first four minutes as he and Whiteside sent out a collective message with a dazzling array of put-backs, lobs and dunks.

“I hadn’t played my best lately and coach told me he expected me to come out and be aggressive tonight,” said Simmons, who has signed to play at Toledo along with Olentangy Liberty sharpshooter Cooper Davis. “We knew we had an advantage inside and we went to the glass with reckless abandon. It wasn’t easy all night, but we matched their runs and came out on top.”

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North did not lay down, rallying from a 12-point third quarter deficit to force a 35-35 tie with 6:07 left. The Panthers attacked with full-court pressure and trapping in hopes of creating steals and more of an up-tempo game, and it worked.

“On offense, they play such a controlled tempo in order to break you down, and they create even more challenges on defense with their bigs, so we made some strategical moves to come back,” Panthers coach Jason Bates said. “I mean, you have to be able to score to beat them. We don’t have much height and we don’t play a ton of kids, so we’ve got to cash in our opportunities when we get them.”

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Clinging to a two-point lead, Simmons scored back-to-back baskets on superb post moves. In the midst of four consecutive empty North possessions, Jones also converted a three-point play and lobbed Eljae Deas for a layup. Game over.

“I think our 2-3 zone really stepped up late in the game,” Simmons said. “During that stretch late in the game, they were just passing it around and couldn’t figure out what to do. We can weather runs because our defense is so solid.”

Simmons scored 18 points and Jones 17 to pace Gahanna. Jerry Saunders had 18 for North, which has beaten all comers this season except for Gahanna and Pickerington Central.

Bates saluted the play of Simmons, adding that his team simply has a tough time matching up with Gahanna. If the brackets play out true to form – which they rarely do in the meatgrinder known as the district tournament – the teams wouldn’t meet again until the regional final.

“You’ve got to pick your poison with Gahanna,” he said. “Either try to throw extra help at Jones or sag inside on the big guys. It’s no secret that our Achilles heel has been stopping dominant big men. Simmons had a great game tonight.”

While proud of a third straight league title and ninth in his 20 years at Gahanna, Staib was even-tempered afterward.

“This was something to go through a league schedule unbeaten,” said. “The regular-season is a 22-game marathon and the guys deserve to soak in this achievement. They know it’s back to work again next week with a new set of challenges ahead.”

Gahanna’s Josh Whiteside looks to score inside, where the Lions did most of their damage against the shorter Panthers.

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