The Columbia Eagles won more games this season and captured their first regional championship since graduating from Class 2A to 3A four years ago.
But two tall hurdles loom ahead for the 22-6 Eagles, who are eying their first sectional and super-sectional championships since 2001, when they were still competing in Class 1A. To go to Peoria for the IHSA State Tournament, Columbia will first have to go through Centralia and Althoff.
“We’ve been talking about the classification situation and know we have ahead of us the 24th-ranked team in the nation and the nation’s winningest program in our sectional,” said Columbia head coach Mark Sandstrom.
Columbia squares off first with Centralia (25-3) in the semifinals of the Highland Sectional, Wednesday at 7 p.m. The winner advances to the championship game against Althoff, ranked No. 1 in Illinois by the Associated Press and No. 24 in the United States by MaxPreps.com.
Althoff knocked off Mount Vernon, 101-63, in the tournament’s other semifinal Tuesday night.
“We’re honored to have the chance to compete against top-level teams,” said Sandstrom, who’s in his 11th season in Columbia. “Our kids understand that Centralia and Althoff are quality teams, but we’re going to compete our tails off because it’s March and anything can happen in March.”
Centralia, which showed up on the latest Illinois AP poll at No. 5, enters the game having won its sixth regional championship in seven years. The Orphans are led by senior guard D’aaron Owens and junior forward Dawson Berry, who scored 18 points in a 48-31 route of Carbondale for the regional championship.
“If Owens isn’t the best, he’s one of the best guards in southern Illinois. He’s the one who makes that team go,” said Sandstrom. “But they are so balanced. All of their kids can shoot it and, one of the big things that has gotten them to this point, is their offensive rebounding.
“There are not too many better than (Centralia coach) Lee Bennett in Illinois. He’ll find ways to manipulate us and get to our weaknesses. They are always very well prepared and they can adjust themselves to whatever the game calls for.”
Two of the Orphans three losses came at the hands of the Crusaders.
Three of the Eagles six losses came against Class 4A teams. A fourth was a 43-point loss to Althoff Jan. 21. Columbia has since won six in a row, including last Friday’s 61-58 triumph over Mater Dei that secured its first regional title since 2011.
“We significantly upgraded our schedule,” Sandstrom said. “We didn’t beat any of those 4A teams, but those games definitely helped make us better. In fact, I’m not sure we would have won that regional (championship) game if not for the schedule we played.”
Three players average in double-figure scoring for Columbia, including brothers Jonathan (14.7 ppg) and Jordan (10.4 ppg) Holmes. Senior Korbin Farmer has pitched in 12.1 points per game in additional to leading the team with 7.9 rebounds per game.
Sandstrom says his team matches up well physically with Centralia.
“Our bigs match up on the outside,” he said. “From a physical standpoint, we match up. We just have to go out and compete with them.”