The Fighting Irish make school basketball history, and ‘the future is bright’ for the team
By Dan McWilliams
The Notre Dame High School boys basketball team made Fighting Irish history by reaching the program’s first state-championship game.
Notre Dame hung close to Goodpasture for three quarters before the school from Madison, Tenn., pulled away for a 59-48 win in the Division II-A finals at the Eblen Center on the campus of Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville on March 4.
Gaas Herman and DJ Brown scored 13 points apiece to lead the Fighting Irish (23-10), while Cole McCormick added 12 points. DJ added a team-high five rebounds, while Cole led the Irish in assists with three and in steals with two. All three made the all-tournament team.
Jayden Jones of the Cougars (32-2) led all scorers with 19 points. Tournament MVP Isaiah West added 16 points and Jack Carter 14 for Goodpasture.
Goodpasture entered the state final with a much better won-lost record than Notre Dame but had trouble shaking off the Irish.
“Goodpasture is an amazing team and presents so many challenges to any team that they play,” said Notre Dame head coach Jonathan Adams, who has led the Irish for six seasons. “We challenged our guys to battle and give us a chance to win. We also told them to control what we can control, and that is energy and effort. Our guys did that to the very end, and I am beyond proud of them. Sometimes you just have to give credit to the opponent, and like the great team they are, Goodpasture took control of any mistakes that we made and stretched the lead out.”
Gaas, DJ, and Cole did not just lead Notre Dame in the state final, Mr. Adams said, citing a 68-62 win over Webb School of Bell Buckle, Tenn., in the semifinals.
“DJ, Gaas, and Cole led us all year offensively. They were our leading scorers all year, and the thing that is the most impressive to me is that the bigger the game, the better that they played,” he said. “I thought Cole did an awesome job of taking on the responsibilities of being our best player and took on every challenge that was presented to him by teams. He also found a way to affect games even if it wasn’t his best scoring night. DJ Brown was a steady force all year and has grown each year that he has been in the program. He took on some very tough defensive assignments and was still able to average 10 points a game. Gaas had the most growth on our team, and as you saw in the semifinal game, he has the ability to take over games in the biggest of moments. Defensively, Jaydon Kelley came in every game and often turned the tide of the game in our favor because of his ability to pressure defensively.”
The state runner-up finish was a good sendoff for NDHS seniors Jaydon, DJ, Andrew Fillauer, Kenny Hammond, Jack Daniel, Ben Houston, and Dylan Jordan.
“Everyone knows that it takes a lot of hard work, but if I had to point out one thing, then I would point out the sacrifices that each of our players makes, especially our seniors,” Mr. Adams said. “Our seniors sacrificed their time, their effort, and personal glory for the team. They put winning and leadership ahead of themselves and showed the younger guys what putting their teammate before themselves looks like.”
Notre Dame lost only one game after Jan. 13 before the state finals.
“I told the boys that I was so proud of what they accomplished, and that no matter what happens that is an accomplishment that they will be remembered for,” Mr. Adams said. “They made history, and I am so proud of them, but I am much more proud of who they are as young men. They are such a blessing to coach!”
A 3-pointer by DJ and a layup by Cole gave Notre Dame a 13-7 lead over Goodpasture by the 4:25 mark of the first quarter. A layup by Gabe Flowers put the Irish up 16-13 going into the second period.
In the second frame, the Cougars fought back to tie the game at 27-27 going into the halftime break. A 3-pointer by Benjamin Houston, jumpers by Benjamin, DJ, and Gaas, and a layup by DJ helped keep Notre Dame close.
The Cougars took a 40-38 lead after three quarters but were up 38-30 at one point in the period before the Irish rallied. Two free throws and a layup by Cole and a 3-pointer by DJ kept Notre Dame in the game.
The game turned in the fourth quarter, when the Cougars held the Irish without a field goal until the closing moments. Cole, a junior, injured his right knee late in the third quarter and could not return until midway through the fourth. Gaas made five foul shots in the quarter and Cole sank two, but Goodpasture took a 55-45 lead by the 2:04 mark of the final period. The Cougars led 59-45 before a 3-pointer by Notre Dame’s Wyatt Shope with 3 seconds left provided the final margin.
In the Irish’s win over Webb in the semifinals, Gaas poured in a game-high 24 points while Kenny added 14 and Cole 12. Gaas led the team in rebounds with eight, while Cole added seven boards and four assists and DJ five rebounds plus a team-best three steals.
Steven Olowoniyi led Webb (22-12) with 17 points. Taveon Comage scored 12 and Arnett Hayes 11.
Notre Dame led Webb 15-12 after the first quarter of play. A 3-pointer and a jump shot by Ben started off the scoring for the Irish. Gaas drained a 3-pointer, DJ made a jumper, Kenny converted a layup, and Cole made a three-point play to account for the 15 points.
Second-quarter points were a little more scarce for both teams, but Notre Dame held on to take a 25-19 halftime lead. Cole hit a 3-pointer, Kenny made a jumper, and Gabe added a free throw to put the Irish up 21-12. Gaas made a layup and DJ scored on a tip-in for a 25-16 lead before Webb made the game a six-point affair at the break.
Webb trailed the Irish 30-21 early in the third quarter before rallying for a 32-32 tie with 4:06 left. Kenny made a 3-pointer and a layup for Notre Dame. Cole and DJ added layups down the stretch as both teams went back and forth before ending the period in a 39-39 tie.
Gaas nailed a 3-pointer 18 seconds into the fourth quarter for a 42-39 Notre Dame lead. Webb answered with a 3 to tie the game, but Gaas gave the Irish the lead for good at 44-42 on a steal and layup at the 6:51 mark. Gaas continued to score while Cole added a dunk to help put Notre Dame up 58-47 with 3:02 on the clock. Three free throws by Kenny and two each by Ben and Gaas helped provide the final six-point margin.
Things are looking up for Fighting Irish basketball, Mr. Adams said.
“I believe that the future is bright for our boys,” he said. “That is because of the foundation that all of my past players have left and the accomplishments of this year’s senior class. This senior class has won a lot of games and been in a lot of pressure situations, and most importantly they succeed in the classroom and as young men. Our players that are returning, and any player that comes into our program, will be expected to uphold that standard.”