Is this Pacific’s year?
The Indians will look to break through Friday against Borgia in the Class 4 District 6 championship game.
The contest, which tips off at Union High School at 7 p.m., features two teams which have met to determine the title four times in the past five seasons.
For top-seeded Pacific, reaching the district championship game isn’t uncharted territory, but it’s been a wall they haven’t yet been able to break through in the 25-year tenure of Head Coach John VanLeer.
For Borgia, it’s familiar territory after winning the last nine district titles in a row under Head Coach Dave Neier.
“I think it’ll be a good game,” VanLeer said. “It just is going to come down to who plays better defense and rebounds better, I think.”
Borgia Head Coach Dave Neier knows it will be a difficult game.
“They’re really tough,” Neier said. “They had a great season. They have all of the elements of having a great team.”
The two teams have met in the district championship game four out of the past five seasons.
In the last nine years, Pacific has reached the district championship game four other times. All four times they have been beaten by Borgia.
Pacific (21-5) entered the Class 4 District 6 Tournament as the No. 1 seed this year, having played and beaten every team in the district except Parkway West during the regular season.
That includes a 55-49 win over Borgia at Pacific on Jan. 30.
In that game, Pacific’s senior guard Cameron VanLeer dropped 34 points on the Knights. To avoid another district downfall at the hands of Coach Neier’s squad, Pacific may well need another performance like that from VanLeer, whom Sullivan held to just nine points on 3-11 shooting from the field in Tuesday’s semifinal contest.
“They have all of the elements of having a great team, especially being led by Cameron VanLeer, who can create so much,” Neier said. “He’s so hard to stop. He’s a good outside shooter and it’s almost impossible to stop him. Even when he’s not, it seems he can get a shot in the lane or take it all the way to the basket. That helps to give him the confidence. Besides him, they have some great outside shooters and a point guard like (Trey) Boyer, who is really smart. He seems to find his openings inside the lane and is able to penetrate to find the open man or have a nice shot. It’s another team that plays awfully hard.”
The first time around, Pacific was also able to overcome Borgia’s size to edge the Knights in the rebounding battle, 27-24. That’s one of the keys Coach VanLeer said his team would need again to finally capture the district crown.
No. 2 Borgia (13-13) was at one point four games below .500 this season, but the Knights have gotten stronger as the season has progressed.
Pacific reached the final with a 49-43 victory over No. 4 Sullivan in Tuesday’s first semifinal. In the second semifinal, Borgia won its rubber match with third-seeded Union, 51-41. Union had upset Borgia in the Washington Tournament back in January before Borgia knocked off Union in the first round of the Wildcats’ own tournament a week later.
Whichever team emerges from Friday’s final will have a tough test awaiting in the sectional round of the state tournament. The District 6 champion will face the District 5 winner on March 6 at Kirkwood. That game will tip off at 7:45 p.m.
In the District 5 Tournament, hosted by MICDS, the two remaining teams are Parkway Central (21-5) and John Burroughs (17-8). Parkway Central rated No. 8 in the final Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Class 4 poll.
Defense has been one of Pacific’s strengths all season. Apart from Borgia, no district opponent reached 40 points against the Indians’ defense in the regular season.
Pacific has also thrived against its toughest opponents. The Indians defeated then No. 8 in the state in Class 4 Nevada, 59-49, in the championship game at the Kansas Army National Guard Invitational back in January and also topped Rolla, ranked No. 5 in the state in Class 4 in the final MBCA poll, on the road 52-46 in overtime just a week before the start of district play.
Cameron VanLeer has been the Indians’ go to shooter all season, averaging 19.7 points per game with a 47.5 field-goal percentage on the year. He adds on 8.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, leading the team in those categories as well.
Opponents have held VanLeer below 10 points just three times this season, including Sullivan in the semifinals.
In that game, point guard Trey Boyer carried the scoring load with 17 points for Pacific.
Boyer is third on the team in points per game with 7.3, behind only VanLeer and Matt Strong (7.4).
While Boyer sets up the offense and does most of his damage driving to the basket, Strong thrives as an outside shooter. Of Strong’s 58 field goals made on the year, 51 have come from beyond the three point arc, where he makes good 40.5 percent of the time.
Senior guard Joey Casey and juniors Jordan Cowsert and Mason Fleming will also put through their fair share of three-point shots given the opportunity.
Tasked with dealing with Borgia’s size in the post for Pacific will be senior forwards Tom Hennessy and Ryan Sauvage.
Hennessy contributes an average of 6.6 points per game and Sauvage 5.8.
Freshman swingman Don’TA Harris has also seen increased playing time with Pacific’s varsity since getting into the game and providing a valuable spark off the bench in the first meeting with Borgia.
To find the last time Borgia was not a part of the state tournament, one would have to go all the way back to 2008 when the Knights were eliminated in the Class 4 District 7 championship game by St. Charles West, 60-47.
The Knights rebounded from that loss with three consecutive trips to the state championship game, bringing home their fifth state title in 2009.
While the Knights have struggled at times this season, the team has shown it has depth among its roster and any of the players can step up.
The likely starting lineup for the Knights is senior Hunter Mehler (13.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.2 steals per game), freshman Max Meyers (3.9 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 2.9 apg), senior Jacob Unnerstall (10.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.7 spg), senior Eli Marquart (7.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.7 spg) and Brendan Smith (6.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.1 blocks per game).
Borgia has several reserves who rotate into the game. Top guard reserves are senior Michael Baylard (4.3 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 2.4 apg) and sophomore Trent Strubberg (2.2 ppg, 1.4 apg, 1.0 spg). Senior Dalton Shust (4.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg) can play guard or forward. Junior Will Elbert (3.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg) started early in the season, but has been Smith’s backup in the post lately.
Junior guard Spencer Hunter is finished for the season due to illness.
A lot depends upon which Borgia team shows up. Mehler has missed six games due to various reasons. When he’s on, he’s capable of scoring 30 or more.
Marquart leads the outside shooters with 44 three-point baskets, but he’s only one of five who has hit 18 or more threes this season.
Borgia has a height advantage, but will need to close out Pacific’s shooters to have a chance.
This will be Borgia’s fifth game this season in Union’s gym, which has been called a tough one for shooters. Borgia won the Union Tournament title there at the end of January.
Still, the Knights have had to grind out wins, including a semifinal victory over Union, 51-41, as both teams struggled in hitting shots.
No matter what happens, Neier knows the district championship game will be a good one.
“This place is going to be packed Friday night,” Neier said. “It should be a lot of fun.”