COLUMBUS – Jarron Cumberland and Jeffery Mansfield walked into the post-game press conference Friday at the Schottenstein Center still teary eyed and emotional.
Twenty-one minutes after Cumberland’s last-gasp three-pointer fell harmlessly to the Value City Arena floor, the raw emotion of a 61-58 loss to unbeaten Lima Senior was far too fresh.
“It was an emotional week with everything going on,” WHS head coach Michael Noszka said after the game.
There was no hiding the way they felt.
Add to that the punch to the gut when the team lost Alex Miller in last week’s game and everything seemed to come crashing down at once on the seemingly invincible Hurricane.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity this week, especially with Alex,” Noszka said.
Miller was dressed on the WHS bench for Friday’s game, a spiritual leader for a short-handed team that could have used his presence on the floor as player more than it could as a cheerleader.
Wilmington was outrebounded 33-20 by Lima Senior, a margin undoubtedly short of the team’s pre-game goal. The Hurricane surrendered six second-chance points to the Spartans in the first quarter.
Noszka was not happy with that and challenged his team to get better. They did, giving up just three more second-chance points over the next three quarters, but the damage was already done.
“His (Miller) injury last week was something that pulled us together, but you’re still missing a kid that’s probably going to get 10 rebounds for us, take some charges and be an inside presence for us,” said Noszka, who began to feel the emotion of the season-ending game in the fourth quarter.
Cumberland struggled early, scoring his first field goal more than nine minutes into the game.
But “the best scorer in the state of Ohio,” Lima Senior coach Quincey Simpson said, began to heat up.
“There’s nobody on our team that can stay with the kid one on one,” Simpson said of Cumberland.
Cumberland poured in eight points in the third quarter and then 11 in the fourth quarter as WHS battled back from a 20-point deficit.
“It can’t end this way,” Noszka remembers thinking to himself in the third quarter when it was 39-19 Lima Senior.
The Hurricane kept pecking away at the difference, seemingly destined to rally as its city has done over the past few years.
The Spartans, unbeaten for a reason, knew the game was far from over.
“One word I would use to describe Wilmington is tough,” coach Simpson said. “They didn’t quit. It shows the character of those kids over there. A grudge match in the state semis, this is the way the game should be.”
Sans Miller, though, the Hurricane just didn’t have enough to get over the hump. It’s not about the points when coaches look at Miller’s contributions.
“Alex is simply one of the best kids I’ve ever coached,” Noszka said leading up to the game. “We want kids to be tough and smart and he’s top three in those two categories of all the kids I’ve ever coached. His leadership has really grown this season.”
For coaches like Noszka, talented players come and go in a high school program. The ones who take advantage of their talents beyond the physical part of their game are the players coaches miss most.
Cumberland, Stewart and Miller are three Hurricane seniors who have been in the program four years, going head to head in practice. They are talented physically but each has grown by leaps and bounds in the intangible aspects of their game.
They’ve battled each other as well as a driven coach who strives for perfection.
At the end of the day, though, the bond that is forged between player and coach by the sweat of two-hour practices each day is difficult to break.
“A piece of me, as a coach, broke last week,” Noszka said. “I lost a piece of myself when Alex went down. I knew he was done.
“Two more pieces of me are leaving with Jarron and Cameron graduating. The hardest thing for me is on Monday I don’t get to spend time with these fine young men.”
Reach Mark Huber at 937-556-5765, or on Twitter @wnjsports.