At 11 o’clock this morning, it will be 10 years to the minute since Open Door’s improbable Patriots took the floor at Value City Arena in Columbus while the pep band played “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The unheralded, unranked, unexpected and unknown Patriots.
Open Door had never before won a district basketball game, let alone a district or regional championship. A spot in the state Final Four? Not until March 20, 2003.
But on that Thursday morning a decade ago, the Patriots were in the spotlight, about to take on second-ranked Maria Stein Marion Local in a Division IV state semifinal. It was the third straight top-10 squad they faced.
It could have gone better.
Point guard Tony Madalone treated Open Door to a 2-0 lead with a drive to the hoop 27 seconds after tipoff. But the taller Flyers engineered a 14-0 run and went on to win 72-47. They shot 52 percent from the floor and made eight of 12
3-point shots on their way to the state championship and a 24-2 record. The Patriots finished 20-6.
Despite the finish, it was a dream season. One that neither coach Alan Januzzi nor his players will forget.
No Elyria school had been to Columbus in 30 years, since Elyria and Elyria Catholic went in 1973. And no Lorain County team had made it to a Final Four since Avon Lake’s unbeaten girls won the Division II state title in 1994.
“It was an interesting season,” said Januzzi, now the coach at Lutheran West. “We start each year with a retreat. I do that with all my teams, and one of the things we do is set goals. I remember Jason Piper and Tony Madalone were setting individual and team goals.
“They said, ‘You know, we want to get down to the Final Four.’ I said, ‘That’s a great goal, write it down.’ But I’m thinking to myself, ‘That’s never gonna happen. You guys can dream on.’ But they set that goal. In their mind, that’s what they wanted to do.”
It looked at first as though the goal was unreachable.
“That year itself was kind of (tumultuous),” Januzzi said. “We had 11 kids. Then Tori (Davis, the school’s career scoring leader) rolled his ankle and was out for three or four games. Two kids quit the team and one became ineligible in January.
“So we actually ended up with eight players, our five starters (co-captains Davis and Madalone, Mike Asbury, Aaron Freeman and Jared Herron) and our three bench guys, Jason Piper, Brent Schmitt and Gene Mason.
“I would take those guys down to the state tournament and get them seats way up at the top. I’d tell them, ‘If you guys want better seats, you know what you gotta do.’ Joking, you know, like it would never happen.’”
But despite a lack of depth, the Patriots got a solid early win over the Dalton Bulldogs, perennial small-school contenders who two years earlier knocked 19-1 Open Door out of the Strongsville sectional.
“It was a good game, a solid game, the kind of game you could say turned the corner for us,” Januzzi said. “Of course, Lorain Catholic was our big rival and they beat us by 13 on our floor early in the season.”
Nevertheless, the Patriots were playing well. After starting the season 3-3, they won eight of their next nine games, lost one, then reeled off nine straight wins leading to the state semifinal.
“We were heading toward the end of the season and Tori was getting ready to break the school scoring record,” Januzzi recalled. “He scored his 1,000th point at Clearview when we beat them, and then Cornerstone Christian came in.
“Well, he ended up not breaking the record, and they beat us on our floor. But that was the last time we lost.”
In February, the coach’s father, Albert Januzzi, an avid high school sports fan, died at age 76, not long before the postseason got under way. But his passing had a galvanizing effect, and the Patriots avenged their loss to Lorain Catholic two days after the funeral.
“It was the final game of the regular season and it was at Lorain Catholic, where Coach Januzzi coached and played,” Madalone said. “There were a lot of emotions that night. I think everybody really played together for the first time all season and we played like that the rest of the way.”
When the Division IV sectional-district tournament opened at Strongsville, Lorain Catholic was the top seed and Open Door was No. 2.
“My personal goal was to get in the district championship game,” he said. “That would have been great. So we beat (Cleveland) Horizon Science and that was an easy win (76-37 in the sectional final). Then we beat Cleveland MLK (61-45) in the district semifinal and that put us in the championship game against (Kidron) Central Christian.
“That night we were down 13 points at the half, and faith was just intertwined in everything we did with our guys,” Januzzi said. “When I got in the locker room, Tony Madalone, Jason Piper and those guys had a Bible out and they were searching for a verse about adversity or coming back or something to help them in that situation.
“That kind of embodied everything we were trying to teach them in terms of relying on their faith when they got in certain situations. We went out and took the lead, but (Central Christian) went down and scored a basket with about 20 seconds left. That tied it (at 40) and there was a foul that the guys on the radio called a ‘phantom foul.’
“The kid went to the line and made the free throw, so we’re down by one,” Januzzi continued. “Before he shot, we had called timeout and told the kids miss or make, we’re not calling timeout. We’re just going to come down and see what we can do. Obviously, we come down and put the ball in Tori’s hands and everybody else runs to the baseline.
“I mean, it didn’t take a genius to figure out to put the ball in Tori’s hands and he came down and hit the shot with 2.1 seconds left.”
The officials added time to the clock, but it didn’t matter. The Patriots hung on 42-41.
“Our kids are just elated,” Januzzi said. “They’d never been to the Canton Fieldhouse (regional tournament site) and didn’t necessarily know what the next step was.”
The next step was the Patriots’ first regional appearance, which they celebrated with a tough 71-62 victory over sixth-ranked Berlin Hiland.
“Aaron Freeman had an unbelievable game,” Januzzi said. “He was hitting shots, pulling up for threes and we doubled their score. I think we were up 18 points at one time.”
Freeman remembers the game very well.
“That was the best game I could have picked to catch fire,” he said from his home in Phoenix. “I remember late in the game going toward the sideline with two guys on me. I put a crossover on one of them and made a pretty deep three. I could hear Coach Januzzi behind me yelling, ‘Oh, no. Why did you shoot that?’ Then when it went in, he was like, ‘Great shot, great shot.’”
The step after Berlin Hiland was another white-knuckle victory, 43-42 over ninth-ranked Sebring McKinley. Again Davis was the hero, burying a foul-line jumper with seven seconds to play.
“I definitely remember those final two plays,” Davis said of his winning shots from his home in Tacoma, Wash. “I don’t remember much else about those games, except that was the most pressure any of us had ever seen.”
“That was just another Tori moment,” Herron said of Davis’ winner in Canton.
Most memorable in Asbury’s mind is finally walking onto the court in Columbus.
“We were such a small school, nobody thought we could get as far as we did,” he said. “But we knew we could do it, and it was a feeling we’ll never forget. I’ll also never forget walking onto the floor thinking, ‘This place is huge,’ and I thought about how many great players had played there.”
The Patriots left for Columbus with the cheers of a pep rally ringing in their ears.
“It was great having the whole school cheering us on, everyone from kindergarten through the 12th grade,” Herron said. “We had great support from the school and people around Lorain County. I remember looking into the stands in Canton and seeing the Elyria Catholic team there pulling for us.”
“I’ll never forget the support we received from the city of Elyria and surrounding communities,” said Davis, who played two seasons with his old brother, Thad, at Baldwin Wallace. “We had a police escort when we left for Columbus and I’ll always remember that support.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or email@example.com.