BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
NEW LONDON – Notre Dame had no answer for Holy Trinity’s Cory Hopper in the first half. Unfortunately, they did in the second and the Crusaders had their season come to an abrupt halt on Thursday in New London.
The Nikes downed Holy Trinity 61-54 and eliminated the Crusaders from post season play. HTC finishes the season at 10-12.
Hopper went for 20 points in the first half. The Nikes scored 24 as a team. Bailey Merschman hit a three pointer, Jack Stinson had two buckets and Nick Pothitakis added a free throw for the only other Crusader points in the first half.
Head coach John Hellige said Notre Dame was running a man-to-man in the first half and then switched up to a 1-3-1 zone and that had an effect on Hopper’s ability to work in the open court.
“Cory was his typical sparkling self. He had 20 in first half then they went to 1-3-1 zone and cooled him off,” Hellige said “We have a really good offense for that but we haven’t used it for a while. We just didn’t execute it well.”
The Nikes, led by Jett Tjaden’s 26 points, held Hopper scoreless in the third period and allowed just one bucket in the fourth but sent him to the free throw line eight times.
Pothitakis tried to pick up the scoring with the defense focusing on containing Hopper, and threw in a couple treys and Collin Thornton and Conner Hellweg combined for six points and Stinson kept working inside for six points, but Notre Dame caught fire at the right time.
The Nikes went on a four-minute 7-0 run that ended with them up 41-37 a minute into the final quarter. HTC tied it up at 41 with seven minutes left in the game. Notre Dame then reeled off five straight points to go up 46-41 and the Crusaders couldn’t make a dent with the closest gap being three with three minutes left. The Nikes sealed the deal with a 9-4 run in the final two minutes to end the season for Holy Trinity.
“We were up four at the half and most of the way through the third, but we went back to some mental mistakes and just left the door open for them,” Hellige said. “And they are a good team and took advantage of those opportunities and we couldn’t catch back up.”
Hellige said it’s been a long relationship with his seniors and one he will always hold dear. He has been working with Hopper, Conrad, Pothitakis, Merschman and the other seniors since sixth grade as a volunteer coach and assistant varsity coach.
“These kids were just great. I have had them them since sixth grade and junior high,” he said. “‘All these guys came up together and I’ve known them the whole time. They grew up with me. This year it was interacting with them at a different level. I couldn’t be more proud of them. They’ve overcome a lot of adversity, Jack not being able to play half of the season…Connor being down. I dream of the team that we could have put on the floor.”
“The way Cory stepped up when Connor went down and took this team on his back…playing point guard for the first time. I just couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
According to Hellige, Hopper set the career scoring mark with 819 points for his career passing Blake Hellweg’s 2015 mark of 783. Hopper also now owns the single season scoring mark with 424 points this year passing Mitch Moeller who held the old mark in the 2011-12 season with 371 points.
He also had a special mention for the other seniors and others who maybe didn’t get a lot of playing time but made healthy contributions.
“We had a lot of seniors and they didn’t see a lot of action, but they busted their butts all year. Even the kids at the end of the bench…but I appreciate all their hard work during the year. I’m the kind of guy that would love to play all 15 every game.”
Hellige said aside from a few teams the Southeast Iowa Superconference is as tough a conference as there is with Danville, New London Notre Dame in the mix. When you sprinkle in matches against Fort Madison and Wapello the season was as tough as any he’s been a part of.
But he said the younger group and jayvee players have had a great season and he’s looking forward to working with them in the off-season.
“I’m really excited about the jv group. They’ve learned a lot from this team and were gonna work hard in the summer and come back and get after it again.”