There are three good reasons Jaaron Simmons has taken over as Alter’s showtime player: Sophomore starters Dean Lemon, Michael Schwieterman and Kraig Howe.
With that many underclassmen, coaches always rely on seniors to take on leadership roles. Simmons and Michael Spencer have done just that.
Those five have made this final season for veteran Knights coach Joe Petrocelli memorable. That’s significant, considering all the great Alter players and teams. The Knights (21-6) will make their ninth appearance in a final four at 8:30 p.m. today, playing No. 2 Columbus Watterson (26-1) in the second Division II boys high school basketball state semifinal at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center. Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (19-9) plays Vincent Warren (26-1) in the other semi at 5:15 p.m.
The winners return for the championship at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“Petro” told the Knights of his retirement plans about five games into this season. Alter hasn’t been the same since.
Undersized and deemed too young, Petrocelli feared the worst this season. Instead, the Knights have played like all great Alter teams, overcoming seemingly more talented opponents with unerring play and shut-down defense.
First, Valley View fell. Then Alter stunned No. 1 Thurgood Marshall 62-58 in a sectional final. That was just a prelude.
Wilmington and Marion-Franklin were beaten, then Alter surprised defending D-II state champ Dunbar 60-59 in a regional final that ranks among the all-time best boys games in area hoop history.
“These kids just won’t let me retire,” Petrocelli said. “It’s been quite a run.”
All three of those sophomores are 6-foot-4. Lemon and Howe are burly converted football players and do their best work near the bucket. Schwieterman has turned into a great third option and always seems to be around the ball.
But it’s the play of guards Simmons and Spencer that makes the Knights go. Spencer (10 points) is a high-energy, up-tempo presence and top defender. Simmons’ (24.4) postseason play has rocketed off the charts.
The recruiting stock of the 6-2 Simmons has soared during the playoffs. Virginia Tech is the latest to show interest.
The only four-year starter in Alter history, Simmons is the program’s all-time leading scorer and will own many significant individual Knights records.
“He has made so many big baskets,” Petro said. “… He’s a pretty good assist man, too. If you’re open, he’s going to get you the ball. He’s a good combination.”
The stakes are the highest in the final four. Defeating Trotwood-Madison, Thurgood Marshall and Dunbar should be good seasoning for the Knights. It’s been 10 years since Alter was last in the final four, losing to Akron SVSM and LeBron James in the 2003 D-II title game.
This is Petrocelli’s 49th season with Alter. He’s averaged 17 wins. Did he think he’d coach this long?
“No, I wouldn’t think 49 years in anything,” he said. “We’ve just been blessed with talent and it just snowballed. I love practice, but the games have worn me down. It’s time. When our last game is finished, I’m finished.”
ALTER BOYS BASKETBALL
3: State titles, 2001, ‘98, ‘78.
9: Final fours.
25: District titles.
77: Longest home win streak (1971-81).