One would think Central Catholic coach Jim Welling would be nervous when he walked in Eastwood’s gymnasium as his Irish were taking on the Eagles three days before Christmas.
Eastwood is his alma mater.
Instead, he walked into a ceremony and saw familiar faces. Eastwood was honoring its first superintendent, the late Dallas Gardner, who took over when Eastwood consolidated in 1958 and stuck around for over a decade.
Dallas Gardner is the father of Sixth District State Representative Randy Gardner, who was Welling’s teammate at Eastwood until to their senior year (1977).
“They did a really nice service before the game in memory of his dad. His whole family was there — it was really, really nice,” Welling said.
Even though Central won the non-league game, 56-49, Welling said none of the Eagle fans made any effort to heckle the Irish coach. It was just the opposite.
“Lots of support. It’s kind of bittersweet, you know,” Welling said. “It’s the alma mater and Eastwood’s got a nice team. Anytime you travel and go on the road, it really doesn’t matter who you play. Can your kids execute and think on their feet? We sputtered a little bit in the first half, but in the second half I thought we played more like we were capable of playing.”
Welling won two junior college national championships during his 20-year stint coaching at Owens Community College. Now his undefeated Irish (7-0) are state ranked among Ohio’s Division II teams.
“It’s pleasantly surprising. We’re still relatively young,” Welling said. “We only have a couple seniors on our team. They are a good, young group of kids. They work extremely hard. You try to downplay any of the stuff that goes on out there and just concentrate on your next opponent. We don’t try to do anything other than preparation and getting ready for the next one.”
In his second season at Central, he has gotten a good taste of City League basketball.
“My thought is that in the City League, the No. 1 thing I found out last year is that, I mean it’s a grind over the course of this season and it doesn’t really matter who you are playing but you need to make sure you respect every opponent but you don’t fear any of them,” Welling said.
His best taste of the CL came when Central defeated St. Francis 37-28 in a packed Sullivan Center last week — 2,800 fans watching, standing room only.
“The environment here was the best I have ever seen in high school basketball in 30 years. It was unbelievable,” Welling said.
But Welling knows the CL is not just about playing teams like St. Francis. You go down the line and you are going to have tough competition any given night, he says.
“Here at Central, they get all giddy about the St. John’s and the St. Francis’ and the rivalries among the powers of the Catholic schools here in the city, but I didn’t come from that background,” Welling said.
“I came from a background where you strap it up and it doesn’t matter who you are playing. You want to give your best effort whether you are playing in front of 500 people or 3,000 people. You know, if you have passion for the game, it doesn’t matter who you play. You will do it with respect but you won’t do it in fear.”
That includes CL East Side opponents Waite and Clay, Welling said. He knows even though Central defeated Waite 54-46 on Dec. 11, Waite coach Dave Pitsenbarger may be saving his best for the end of the season.
The Indians demonstrated that when they took a 40-18 halftime lead against Southview, but ended up winning by only 10 points (62-52) last Saturday night in Grant Murray Field House.
“Waite is a team that has got tremendous talent. Athletic, and on paper, there is no comparison,” Welling said.
“I’ll tell you what, we played St. John’s early last year — game two. The improvement of teams over the course of two or three months is amazing. They keep getting better, and I think everybody is going to keep getting better, and that’s why one through nine in the City, top to bottom, it really doesn’t matter, you can’t lay an egg.
“You lay an egg on any opponent you are going to put yourself in a position to not make the final four. For not having a City championship here in 42 years, our guys know that you can’t take a day off. You just can’t, and if you do, there’s somebody that is going to bite you because there are upsets in basketball every single day.”
Welling’s teams have demonstrated patience and played solid defense — keeping teams under 30 points twice. Offensively, his top scorer (Drew Lehman) is averaging 10 points per game, and he has three players among the leaders in rebounding (Mashion Washington, 8.2; Tony Mays, 7.5; Lehman, 6.3).
That’s unlike his Owens’ teams, which often scored 90 to 100 points.
“It’s a combination of both (personnel and players),” Welling said. “We don’t have great athleticism. We don’t have the same kind of great talent that I ever had at Owens, No. 1.
“But No. 2 is here at Central we have some good athletes but the majority of them are just good kids who understand how to play. It’s not by design that our scores are low scoring, but on the defensive end of the floor we spend an extensive amount of time teaching our man-to-man defense,” Welling continued.
“We have good depth. We can go 9, 10, 11 deep. It’s just a combination of guys understanding and letting the game come to them versus players taking it to the opponent. It’s a combination of playing good, solid man-to-man defense.”