Tears welling up in his eyes, Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel walked over to accept the 3A state championship at center court Saturday afternoon and immediately turned toward the throng of Eagles’ fans on the far side and raised the trophy skyward.
Every step of the way this season, particularly in the title game against Westlake that saw Centennial pull away in the fourth quarter for a 57-43 victory, the student body and community had been there providing support and Hollwedel wanted to make sure he acknowledged them.
“It’s something we did for the first time in the history of the school and I truly don't think we get here or finish it off today without them behind us,” Hollwedel said. “For the school, the community, the coaches and players that came before this group … it’s special for everyone. There is a little piece of this that goes out to each and every one of them.
“To get the trophy and look up across at the undying support filling an entire side of a college arena, is just an indescribable feeling.”
Centennial (25-2) senior Isaiah White, who led a group of four Eagles in double figures scoring with a game-high 18 points, was in a similar spot searching for the words to describe the feeling of going out on top.
“It just felt like such a relief, I was so proud,” White said. “Especially with our community behind us like that … it’s just great, I can’t describe it.”
The championship marked the first for a Howard County team since River Hill won in 2007. On the other side, Westlake (23-5) finishes as a finalist for the second straight year.
Later in the evening, Oakland Mills joined the party by winning the 2A boys state championship as well. It marks the first time two Howard County boys basketball teams have won state titles in the same season.
In the game between Centennial and Westlake, neither team established much of an upper hand in the first quarter. The score was deadlocked at 9-9 after eight minutes. Tom Brown (10 points) had an early five points for the Eagles.
In the second quarter, though, it was Westlake that struck the first blow. The Wolverines rolled off seven unanswered points, punctuated by a 3-pointer from Dominic Espeleta (14 points), to grab a 16-11 lead with 4:28 remaining in the half.
But, as they have all season, Centennial was extremely quick to answer. Sparked by White, who scored eight of his points in the second quarter, the Eagles closed the opening half on a 13-4 run to head into the break up four, 24-20.
“We got a lot of stops and started playing help defense. We started actually rebounding and boxing out, which I thought was the key,” White said. “We just buckled down, got some rebounds and got out in transition.”
The third quarter was back and forth, with neither team leading by more than three points after Westlake scored the first three points out of halftime.
It was a switch to some three-quarter court pressure toward the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth that ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in the run that decided the game.
Centennial, who forced Westlake into 20 turnovers on the game, got a handful of steals and transition baskets as part of an 18-7 run to open the final period.
“I think we just had a lot of unforced turnovers and I think we got impatient in the third, fourth quarter and they took advantage of it,” Westlake coach Ed Mouton said.
Chad Strothers, who was held to just three points in the first half, keyed the run with nine of the Eagles points during the push out to their first double-digit lead of the night.
“In the first half I was just a little bit off, but my teammates and the coaches kept supporting me and telling me to keep playing the way Ive been playing,” Strothers said. “Eventually I just found it in me. I got some steals and that led to some baskets.”
Late, as Centennial was putting the finishing touches on the victory, Elijah White (10 points) added an exclamation point with a transition dunk that sent the already raucous crowd over the top.
Afterward, Hollwedel was emotional on reflecting on his journey to this year’s championship. He had teams in 2011 and 2012 make it to the state final four, only to fall short.
This year’s team, however, was able to finish things off.
“I have been personally affected by those losses for a long time, just not knowing if we’d ever get back down here and have another chance,” Hollwedel said. “It just, for some reason, felt very right this time. And it’s felt that way all season. This is a special group and I’ve said it from the first day back in November.”
Hollwedel went on to add that the title carried even more meaning for him considering the passing of former Centennial basketball team manager Zach Lederer almost exactly a year earlier. Lederer, who had been battling brain cancer for several years and had become a world-wide inspiration with his “Zaching” pose to signify strength, has the manager’s locker room at the Xfinity Center dedicated in his honor.
Hollwedel and the Eagles visited the room upon arriving at the arena for the semifinals. Then, after winning the championship, the entire team did the “Zaching” pose on the court with their trophies.
“It’s more special this week getting this with the support of the Lederers. Feeling the emotion of walking past that managers locker room — touch that sign, take a picture with the team in front of his locker on the first day — it’s all very powerful,” Hollwedel said. “So of all the years to do it, it just means that much more for it to be this year with all that has happened. Part of him was here with us this week.”
Centennial 57, Westlake 43
C (25-2): I. White 18, Strothers 12, Brown 10, E. White 10, Geist 4, Merkey 2, Wilson 1.
W (23-5): Espeleta 14, Alston 11, Ware 9, English 5, Johnson 2, Simmons 2.
Half: 24-20 C.