Lonnie Lollar has always believed in the power of faith.
For the last seven years coaching Bishop Carroll, his teams have oftern been overmatched. Lollar has yet to have a team finish a season with single-digit losses.
But he’s an eternal optimist. No one had a bigger grin than Lollar after the Eagles beat second-seeded Goddard Eisenhower 62-55 on Wednesday night at the in the Class 5A boys tournament at the Kansas Expocentre.
“We may not be the most talented and we’re not always the prettiest team to watch,” Lollar said, “but when it comes to guts and heart, we’re All-Americans in my eyes.”
Every time Carroll senior Jordan Bieberle rose and released the ball, he believed it was going in. It didn’t matter if he was off-balanced or a hand was blocking his face. He believed.
By the time Bieberle was finished, he had tied the 5A state tournament records for points (37) and three-pointers made (8) in a game. In the biggest stage, Bieberle transcended the moment. He made his first seven shots, five coming behind the arc, and finished the night shooting 11 of 14.
“After I hit my second three-pointer in a row, I realized it was going to be one of those games,” said Bieberle, who entered averaging 12.1 points. “The coaches believed in me and told me to keep shooting, and I believed in myself so I kept shooting.”
Bieberle’s hot streak buried Eisenhower in a 12-point deficit for much of the first half. But the Tigers survived, and felt they were on the verge of winning when they took a 45-41 lead in the fourth quarter.
Just when the wave of momentum seemed ready to drown Carroll, Bieberle slithered around a screen for an inch of space and on Wednesday night that was all he needed to operate.
“I don’t know what it is about that number 23 uniform, but there’s a lot of good 23s,” Lollar said. “He was right up there with the best of them tonight.”
After upsetting Andover Central, the previously-unbeaten No. 1 team in 5A, to reach Topeka, Carroll followed it with a performance even grittier.
“It’s hard to explain,” said senior Logan Bullinger when asked where their confidence comes from. “You just have to belief in yourself. When we believe that we can, then anything is possible.”
Eisenhower never thought this was possible. As the seconds ticked away, senior Zach Bush (25 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals) kept glancing at the scoreboard, not comprehending the numbers.
Bush, and fellow senior Ashton Briggs, had decided to follow their coach of three years, Steve Blue, to Eisenhower. They believed they could be something special. They believed it was their destiny to raise a banner in their new gymnasium.
The contrast of scenes in the locker rooms was stark. In one, an 18-year-old was being immortalized as a hero. The other told the story of how a first-year school came together behind one team.
“It was just devastation,” were the words that Blue finally found. “It’s going to take a long time to get over this loss because these kids mean so much to us and mean so much to each other. Zach Bush, and Ashton, took a huge chance following us over to Eisenhower to start something. I think they deserved a lot better than this.”
As one dream ended, another continued.
“I’ve been to state three years now and we haven’t made it past the first round,” Bieberle said. “I wanted to make this a year to remember, to get a chance to play for a state championship. We believed we could make it come true and we did.”
Kapaun 48, St. Thomas Aquinas 44 — Once the Crusaders saw with their own eyes what their goal was, the experience transformed them.
“A while back I took the three state trophies that Kapaun actually has and I put them right at halfcourt,” first-year coach John Cherne said. “It’s not just about having a goal. You have to actually see it. You have to have a vision and know where you’re going.”
Since Cherne helped them visualize their path, the Crusaders have a seven-game winning streak and find themselves in Friday’s semifinals against top-seeded Lansing.
“We’re on a hot streak right now,” Kapaun senior Nick Cook said. “Coach knows how high our confidence is. He trusts us and we trust him. With that trust, you really get the best out of everybody.”
Kapaun was at its best when it counted the most. The Crusaders never trailed after the game’s opening moments, and connected on 13 of 17 foul shots in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory.
“Coach always makes us shoot 100 free throws in practice,” said Cook, who made 5 of 6 attempts and scored eight points. “He tells us to put ourselves in game situations, so I wasn’t surprised down the stretch. But we did have a lot of guys step up.”
Michael Martin scored a steady 12 points, while Braden Hullings’ 12 points usually came at critical moments for the Crusaders (14-9).
“Today was all about staying alive and surviving,” Cherne said. “And we did that.”