Johnathan Stove doesn’t have the height or the hype enjoyed by some of the Baton Rouge area’s top senior boys basketball players.
But the 6-foot-4 Christian Life Academy junior has something some top players lack — a state championship under his belt. As the top-seeded Crusaders prepare to host Ascension Catholic to open the Class 1A playoffs on Tuesday night, Stove is confident and cautious.
“I always thought this team could be good, even though we graduated some great guys from last year,” Stove said. “Most of us have been playing together for six or seven years now. I like the way we play defense and shoot.
“I was a kid who grew up watching the older guys and wanting to be part of the tradition here. It’s about playing hard every minute and being consistent.”
Stove earned all-state honors when the Crusaders won the 1A state title a year ago. It was the school’s first title in two years, continuing CLA’s tradition that included four titles in five years earlier in the past decade.
Given the history, it is easy to see why Stove views Tuesday’s 7 p.m. game against Donaldsonville-based Ascension Catholic as a starting point. The actual starting point for Stove came months ago.
Stove spent the summer months working to improve his ball-handling and outside shooting. That summer work has given Stove the option to take opponents off the dribble, which allows for more open shots for teammates. He averages 21 points and 10 rebounds per game and extended his shooting range.
“Johnathan works extremely hard,” CLA coach Mark Cascio said. “I don’t think most people ever realized how young he was. You’d hear people say he didn’t handle the ball well two years ago, and I’d remind them he was a freshman then.
“Improving his shooting and ball-handling added to his game. And he’s also strong enough to muscle up with taller players on the inside.”
Those who wondered whether Stove could fill a leadership role shouldn’t have, Cascio said. After all, Stove was a team captain as a freshman.
“I’ve followed guys like Langston (Galloway) and Frank (Bartley) and got to watch how they were as leaders,” Stove said. “You have to lead by example, but I don’t mind speaking up. This team is funny, but in a good way. We can laugh at ourselves when need to. But we also know how to work to get things done.”
Cascio sees Class 1A as being more balanced than a year ago, noting that some traditional powers, like locals White Castle and Southern Lab, are lower seeds and just as dangerous. Second-seeded Central Catholic is a team the Crusaders lost to during the regular season. North Central, a semifinalist last season, is another team to watch.
Stove said the Crusaders can’t leave anything to chance.
“Ascension Catholic might be a No. 32, but they do some good things,” Stove said. “We need to come out focused.”
Crowns and couples
Christian Life and Class 5A Scotlandville were the only Baton Rouge-based boys teams to win state titles in 2012.
Class 2A John Curtis was the New Orleans’ area only champion a year ago.
All three of those teams played local rivals in the finals. Scotlandville defeated McKinley in 5A, while CLA beat 2011 champion White Castle in 1A. Curtis beat rival Riverside Academy.