Flashback: Willard's brush with greatness

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Mar. 14—The entire scene was comedy.

As he moved to center court for the fifth game of his high school career, then-Willard freshman Jimmy Langhurst couldn't see.

"Right before the tip, I lined up right next to him and I never felt smaller," Langhurst said. "I was 13, barely had hair on my chest and couldn't drive a car — and he's got the frame of a Greek god.

"He was bent over with a wide stance ready for the tip. I'm the size of a pencil, and I can barely see past him and his muscles. It was honestly just funny."

Twenty seasons ago, the Willard boys basketball program was at the height of another sustained run of excellence. Looking to challenge the team in non-league play, head coach Greg Nossaman certainly found one on December 17, 2002.

The Crimson Flashes made the 70-mile trip east on U.S. 224 to face Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary inside James A. Rhodes Arena at University of Akron.

But the Fighting Irish weren't an ordinary test. Not only was Willard facing the best team in Ohio — they were facing the best high school team in the country.

The top player for the Irish was a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who just 10 months earlier had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One."

"He could pretty much do whatever he wanted," said Nick Dials, a Willard senior at the time who was also one of the state's top players. "He was just ... that's LeBron James. He was that much bigger and athletic than anyone else."

Last month, LeBron James became the NBA's all-time career scoring leader when he pushed his career total to 38,388. With 46 points on Feb. 7, he broke the record that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held for 38 years.

Twenty years earlier, James was leading the loaded SVSM team to a third state championship in four seasons.

Although the loss to the Irish was one of the worst in Willard history, that night has also been enhanced over time. As the Ohio High School Athletic Association state championships are held this week, here is a look back at Willard's brush with greatness.

Setting the stage

The Crimson Flashes had won the Northern Ohio League championship in the previous three seasons. With little resistance, they did it again in 2002-03 for a four-peat.

Willard had reached the Division II state semifinals when Dials was a sophomore, losing 70-66 to Warrensville Heights.

Dials scored 29 points in the loss, matching the most points scored by any individual in the 12 state semifinal and championship games across the four divisions.

The other 29-point game?

James — in a 56-50 Div. III semifinal over Haviland Wayne Trace.

Prior to that senior season for both Dials and James, St. Vincent-St. Mary had moved up a division in enrollment. Not only were Willard and SVSM now in the same division, the two teams were destined for the same regional at the University of Toledo.

"We were trying to play a more challenging, regional and national schedule," Dials said. "Two games before going to Akron, we beat Laurinburg Institute (65-64 in overtime) down in Wellston.

"The year before in Columbus, we played Montrose Christian from Maryland, which is where Kevin Durant later went to school," he added. "But when we beat Laurinburg, they were nationally ranked. We were feeling pretty decent, though I knew we were facing a much taller task."

Playing the Irish, however, went far beyond James. Among the other four starters, Dru Joyce III and Romeo Travis stayed home and played for the Akron Zips. Sian Cotton went to Ohio State, then later Youngstown State and Walsh, for football.

The fifth starter, Corey Jones, also stayed close to home and led Walsh to the NAIA national championship in 2005.

Off the bench for minutes on the court was Marcus Johnson, who later became a double-digit scorer and helped University of Dayton reach the NCAA Tournament.

"We obviously had a pretty good team in our own right that Coach Nossaman wanted to challenge," Langhurst said. "So he was trying to get us prepared for St. V's ... but I'm not sure what would have?

"Maybe if we had played eight-on-five? I don't know if that would have made a difference, either."

Man among boys

The entire Tuesday night experience didn't go well. A freezing rain-snow mix made the drive difficult, and then the Willard bus driver missed the exit to the arena.

"Small stuff, but I do remember that happening," Dials said.

Nossaman had scouted the Irish twice. SVSM didn't shoot the ball from the outside very well but predictably got easy scores at the rim.

"So I figured we'd pack in this zone and be able to do some different things to force them to shoot," Nossaman said.

Led by James, the Irish instead made seven 3-pointers in the first quarter and 12 in the game. The Flashes trailed 28-16 at the quarter break.

James dazzled with multiple slam dunks and going 6-of-9 from the three-point line, finishing with 36 points and eight rebounds.

Just six months later, he was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"He could do everything — yet didn't need or try to do everything," Dials said of the future NBA star. "He allowed his teammates to do what they do well. He didn't try to do too much — but definitely showed who he was."

Completely outmatched, the Flashes were down 55-25 at halftime and trailed 86-40 after three quarters.

The 103-49 final score still stings today.

The Flashes never stood a chance before a crowd of 5,249 that included Cavs player Darius Miles and Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren. The 200 hand-fans of LeBron's face fluttering in the seats didn't help, either.

Langhurst scored 13 points, Dials got 12, but the team had 25 turnovers. Gabe Sanders added nine points, while J.J. Ditz, Brandon Oney, Tyler Buss, Harley King and Kevin Johnson all found their names in the scorebook.

Showing team depth, Joyce III had 14 points and 11 assists, followed by Travis with 15 points and nine rebounds, Marcus Johnson with 16 points, and Jones with 13 points and seven assists.

Willard finished 21-4 in 2003, claiming another district title. The Flashes lost, 72-64, to Ottawa-Glandorf in a regional semifinal at Toledo as LeBron James and his teammates watched before beating Tallmadge in the second game.

St. Vincent-St. Mary went on to defeat Glandorf, Canton South and Kettering Alter to win a third state title in four seasons.

Legacy game

St. Vincent-St. Mary has won another six state titles since James and his class graduated.

The Irish beat the Flashes again at the Toledo regional in 2004 and 2006. James funded a new home gymnasium in 2013 that is named in honor of his coach, Dru Joyce II.

But on the other side of the floor on Dec. 17, 2002, quite a legacy was also left.

After scoring 2,180 points and initially starting his college career at Ohio State, Dials transferred to Akron — where he played alongside both Joyce III and Travis. Their head coach was Keith Dambrot, who was the coach at SVSM for that group's first two years of high school.

Joyce III is currently the associate head coach to Dambrot at Duquesne University.

"I had a unique perspective from playing with and against those guys for years, including the summer before in Las Vegas," Dials said.

While he was playing for the Zips, Dials noted James would bring some Cavaliers teammates to scrimmage in the offseason.

Dials has had several coaching jobs, including Akron and Toledo. He's now at Div. III Capital University near Columbus.

"Looking back, that's pretty cool I got to share the floor with him that night," Dials said. "History shows that was a good night for basketball. And our fans back home, it was a night they remember. Basketball means a lot to Willard, and we appreciated being respected enough for them to say, 'come play us here.'"

Langhurst scored 2,199 career points at Willard and played at Robert Morris University.

His assistant coaching journey has taken him to Div. I Stonehill College, about 25 miles south of Boston.

"There isn't a season that goes by where I don't talk about it, because this entire generation of kids grew up with LeBron," Langhurst said. "It's great to talk about it with today's kids.

"It's neat to say I took a charge against LeBron and was the leading scorer in that game for us ... but I don't really like to give the final score in those stories."

Much the way Dials likes to remind Travis he was blocked by a six-foot guard, he has a similar view.

"People from our school and community never really got to have that type of experience in that environment before," Dials said. "As sweet as those memories are, it's definitely a game to forget from a competitive standpoint.

"But it's cool to look back and say I ended up the Player of the Year (Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association) in Division II that year, and LeBron got Mr. Basketball," he added. "So that's one award I didn't give to my parents. I'm going to keep that one."

Beyond the St. Vincent-St. Mary stars and Dials and Langhurst, Willard had plenty more star power.

Sanders (Ashland) and Ditz (Mount Union) played college football. Buss and Eric Barrison were state track and field champions.

Kevin Johnson, who played baseball at University of Cincinnati, was later drafted and played minor league baseball. Nossaman coached 10 years at Willard, and has since taken Div. I Powell Olentangy Liberty to the state semifinals as well.

"We all can't be LeBron James making millions and star in the NBA, but we can all be successful in other ways," Nossaman said. "We were in a small town and had a great run there with some great people from the community. And now those guys have accomplished a lot of great things beyond that night.

"You can be from a small town and go on and do great things with your life — and many of those guys have."