State dream remains alive following coach’s resignation

New Cleveland Central Catholic head coach Jordan Duke instructs his players during a timeout during a Division II district semifinal game against Tallmadge at Stow-Monroe Falls High School in northeast Ohio on Wednesday night. The Ironmen won 57-49.  

Zac Jackson

STOW, Ohio — Those who know the circumstances surrounding the sudden resignation of Cleveland Central Catholic High School basketball coach Jonathan Harris remain tight lipped.

Those Central Catholic players are tight knit — and a night after they found out they’d go forward without their coach, the Ironmen defeated Tallmadge in a Div. II district semifinal Wednesday night to keep their state tournament dreams alive.

Central Catholic, the No. 1 seed in the Stow district and a team considered good enough to play deep into the state tournament, had to hold off a stubborn Tallmadge squad late, securing a 57-49 win by scoring the game’s final five points over the final 40 seconds.

By winning and advancing to Saturday’s district final the Ironmen "had a weight lifted off of our shoulders," interim coach Jordan Duke said after the win. "Me being in the new spot as coach and not knowing they’d respond, the kids showed how strong they were, how close they were. They could have folded but they were just relentless, resilient."

Harris resigned on Tuesday after three years on the job. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he was stepping away for family reasons and "the timing was bad, but there was a lot of stuff going on."

Cleveland Central Catholic school president Leo Hyland sent the newspaper a statement by email on Wednesday that read: "Jonathan Harris has resigned as Head Boys’ Basketball Coach at Cleveland Central Catholic for personal and family reasons. As a matter of policy, the school does not comment on personnel issues."

Wednesday night in a musty corridor below Stow high school’s gym stood an exhausted Duke — now an undefeated coach but a 23-year old left to address questions for which he insists he does not have answers.

"I had no idea any of this was happening. None," Duke said. "I walked into practice like I always do (on Tuesday). I was told (by athletic director Grant Innocenzi) that I had to run practice and I said, ‘That’s fine.’ And then (all the coaches) were called upstairs and they let us know what was going on.

"Then we had to let the team know."

Duke said he and the rest of the staff conferred and were content canceling Tuesday’s practice.

"The kids wanted to continue…to go finish practice," Duke said. "We as coaches had already sat down and done the preparation for (Wednesday’s game). Then the blow happened."

Duke works at Key Bank, "right down the street" from the school in Cleveland’s Slavic Village. He was considered the lead assistant under Harris in this, his second season coaching at Central Catholic. Duke played at Bedford Chanel High School, a league rival of Central’s before Chanel closed at the conclusion of last school year.

Competition to attract top young basketball players in and around the Cleveland area has never been stiffer, and Harris built quite a team at Central Catholic. Three starters are 6’5 or taller and all three are underclassmen; 6’7 manchild Tervell Beck is a sophomore who on Monday night was named Northeast Lakes District Div. II Player of the Year.

Less than 48 hours and a coaching change later, Beck scored 19 points and followed the lead of versatile junior Antwon Lillard in helping push Central Catholic to 17-6 on the season and one win from the Sweet 16.

"I just had to lock myself in my bedroom last night, turn the phone off, just think about everything," Lillard said. "We had (an assistant) coach leave us earlier in the season. We had guys quit the team. I just sat and thought, ‘Maybe no one but us wants us to win (the state championship). Maybe all we have is us.’"

Lillard said he had to turn off his cell phone Tuesday night due to "so many calls, call after call, text after text, (people on) Twitter talking like they knew what was going on. Nobody knew what happened (with Harris). We just knew we had a game to win so we could play another game.

"We’ve been through it, man."

Just getting to Stow for Wednesday night’s game was a struggle. The Central Catholic bus took two of Cleveland’s busiest rush-hour freeways the 35 miles or so towards Stow, in northern Summit County. The bus didn’t make it to Stow until about 6:25, or 10 minutes before the players were allowed to take the floor for warmups.

"I was already nervous enough," Duke said. "The traffic was ridiculous."

A pair of 3-pointers from point guard Desmond Crosby keyed a 15-3 start to the game eased the nerves both coaches and players on the Central Catholic side were fighting. The Ironmen had to hang on from there, but hang on they did.

"I’m so proud of the kids," Duke said. "This has been rough — real rough. There’s something about these kids that they come together closer and closer. That’s what they do. It wasn’t coaching. It was them.

"The outside things that came about…it was stressful. But the mission hasn’t changed. We’ve had situations that happened. These kids have situations every day of their lives. I’m not going to say they’re used to it, but they know how to cope. They know how to keep moving. Their focus is the state championship."

Asked again what happened with Harris or how this situation came about, Duke said: "I have absolutely no idea. I’ve talked to (Harris); he gave me a message of good luck tonight and we didn’t talk about it. I’ll wait until someone wants to sit me down and let me know. Right now it’s about these kids and trying to win the state championship.

 

"They have a lot on their shoulders. They’re kids. They have no idea. Before we left (school on Wednesday) we talked about their focus, toughness…strength. I knew they’d come and play hard. We didn’t play our best game, but we met our goal. We’re coming back Saturday afternoon."

Asked to describe just what kind of weight the players felt they’d been carrying in the wake of Harris’s resignation, Beck grabbed at both sides of his backpack and just grinned.

"We have practice tomorow," Beck said, turning to high-five his new coach.

Duke gladly accepted.

"We don’t know what happened," Duke said. "I told them not to believe anything they hear but just to come together…and believe in each other.

"We’ve been waiting for tomorrow. We said, ‘Let’s survive tonight, and let’s go at it tomorrow.’"

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