ST. JOSEPH — When Central Catholic High School’s basketball team was sitting at 0-4 and then 1-5 early this season, a conference championship seemed a long way off. The Saints were just trying to find a way to win the next game.
That made Friday night’s bus ride home from St. Joseph all the sweeter for Coach Jason Welch’s team.
Led by 16 points each from seniors Tommy Nelson and Luke Yoder, the Saints held on to edge St. Joseph-Ogden, 58-55, to earn the Illini Prairie Conference title. It was Central’s first league championship since winning the Corn Belt crown in 2015 and came on Senior Night for St. Joseph-Ogden, which, like Central, began the night undefeated in conference play.
“To get yourself to 22-7 after you start 1-5, I have two words for that: mentally tough,” Welch said. “Our guys just don’t quit. They come to practice every night and grind. I’m really proud of our team, not only the guys out on the floor, but we have a lot of guys who make us better in practice.
“It’s a special night to be able to go to St. Joe on their Senior Night and scratch and claw and win the conference.”
Junior guard Cole Davis added 10 points and sophomore J.T. Welch nine for Class 2A No. 6-ranked Central, which ended 9-0 in Illini Prairie action.
After battling to a 29-all halftime tie, the Saints edged in front 47-42 after three quarters. The lead grew to as many as 11 before St. Joseph-Ogden (19-9, 8-1) roared back to within a point in the final minute.
Central then forced a five-second call on an inbounds play. Yoder was fouled soon after and made two free throws to provide the final margin.
“Our coaching staff reminded us we had another foul to give and that enabled our guys to hunker down and get a five-second call,” Jason Welch said. “Our kids hung on and fought in a really hostile environment.”
Nelson, a 6-foot-5 forward, said the atmosphere “felt like a sectional championship.”
“We came out in the third quarter and played some really good defense,” Nelson said. “We kind of lost it for a little bit and were playing not to lose, but we came back at the end. We did a great job of handling adversity, which is what you have to do in the postseason.”
Six-five senior Jack Cook scored 25 points to lead St. Joseph-Ogden, with 17 coming in the first half.
Central planned to savor the win Friday night, then be back on the practice floor Saturday in preparation for next week’s Olympia Regional.
“It was a great regular season, but we’re ready for the postseason and make a good run,” said Yoder, who helped the Saints to third in the state last year. “It (winning the conference) was a big goal. Last year we didn’t win it. We lost to Monticello. So this was a goal and it feels great.”