St. Louis Christian made quite an impression in its first season playing in the St. Francis Borgia Pepsi Cola Thanksgiving Tournament.
The third-seeded Cougars (4-0), a team full of size, speed and athleticism, knocked off fifth-seeded Washington (2-1) in the championship game Saturday night, 61-44.
“There was a lot of good competition here. It’s a great team win for us,” said St. Louis Christian Head Coach Casey Autenrieth. “We were a little worried coming into the tournament. We’re a little young and inexperienced. We haven’t had a lot of practice time together. I was real proud of my guys and the way they came together.”
St. Louis Christian is not a MSHSAA school, but it is a MSHSAA affiliate, the first to ever play in the Turkey Tournament.
Because of their affiliation status, the Cougars are allowed to play against MSHSAA schools.
St. Louis Christian, a program able to bring in players from all over the world, has five players standing between 6-5 and 6-11.
“The size helps. We play against teams from all over the country. Believe it or not, we’re undersized in a lot of those games. We really are,” Autenrieth said. “We stress ball movement, team defense, unselfishness and really stress the team concept.”
Needless to say, the Cougars were a tough matchup for their three tournament opponents, Pacific, Borgia and Washington.
“Especially with no days to prepare, not that a day to prepare would have helped us. You can’t really prepare for being out-jumped and out-athleted,” said Washington Head Coach Chip Sodemann. “It’s tough after an emotional game for us against McCluer North the night before to turn around and play those guys.”
Javier Martinez, a 6-6 senior forward, scored 26 points for the Cougars against Washington and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Anthony Pratt, a 6-7 sophomore forward, added 15 points and also was named to the all-tournament team.
Ronnie Suggs led the Blue Jays with 22 points, going 8-10 from the free-throw line.
Luke Schroepfer finished the game with 11 points.
Suggs and Schroepfer represented Washington on the all-tournament team.
Brad Carpenter added six points. Cory Epperson scored three points. Jared Walde had two points.
Luke Hasenjaeger, Patrick Menke, Jacob Mulkey, Christian Hardesty and Austin Subke also played.
The championship game never was in doubt. The Cougars jumped to leads of 11-0 and 17-3 before settling for a 19-7 advantage after one quarter.
Washington outscored Christian 13-12 in the second quarter and trailed 31-20 at intermission.
“We dug ourselves a hole that we just couldn’t get out of,” Sodemann said. “I think we took 25 field goals in the first half and 15 of them were threes. If even three or four more of those go down, you’re looking at a different ballgame. Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces. Our defense, usually what we try to pride ourselves on, was not able to pick us up.”
A basket by Suggs 14 seconds into the third quarter pulled the Jays to within single digits, 31-22, but they got no closer.
The Cougars led 45-26 after three quarters.
Revaun Garaway, Christian’s 5-8 senior point guard, did a solid job distributing the ball to the big weapons, including Martinez, Pratt and 6-11 junior Ikkena Okwarabezi.
Sodemann said playing a team like St. Louis Christrian will only help the Blue Jays.
“I think it was good for us to play a team like that. We know what it’s like to play at that high of a level,” he said. “We can do nothing but learn from it, correct our mistakes and get ready for the next game.”
The Blue Jays will not see another team like St. Louis Christian, not even at the Meramec Tournament in late December.
“I think we can compete for a good seed at Meramec, having beaten McCluer North and Cardinal Ritter,” Sodemann said. “I don’t know if there are any teams quite like (St. Louis Christian) at Meramec.”
Sodemann liked what he saw from the Blue Jays during the tournament.
“We really played well. I was proud of the way we hung in there against Cardinal Ritter and McCluer North when we could have folded a couple of times,” Sodemann said. “Overall, it was a good tournament for us. We were seeded fifth and got second, which is a positive to finish higher than what you were seeded.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis Christian will travel across the Midwest for games this season.
“This year we’ll be in Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois and Kansas,” Autenrieth said. “In two weeks, we head to Wichita, Kan., to play the preseason No. 10 team in the country, Sunrise Christian Academy, out of Wichita. We feel better about that game now that we’ve had three good games here under our belt in a hostile environment.”
So will the Cougars be back for next year’s Turkey Tournament?
“For sure. It’s a great event. I’ve been to tournaments all over the country and this was one of the best I’ve ever been to,” Autenrieth said. “We were thrilled to be a part of it. Borgia hosts a fabulous event. The hospitality was fantastic.”