Dru Joyce II is in his 18th season as St. Vincent-St. Mary boys basketball coach, and he continues to look for ways to improve his team.

He is not content with making the trek down to Columbus for the state tournament for the 11th time as a head coach (13th occurrence when you include two years as an assistant).

He is also not content with the five state championship wins in Division II during his tenure as head coach, and he would like to win St. V-M its ninth state crown overall this weekend at Ohio State University.

St. V-M’s first state title came in Class AA in 1984. The Irish won state championships in Division III in 2000 and 2001, and then won state titles in Division II in 2003, 2009, 2011, 2017 and 2018. St. Mary also won a Class B state title in 1929.

This season, the Irish moved up to Division I due to the OHSAA Competitive Balance legislation, and Joyce said he and his players have carried that with them in 2019.

“We have definitely thought about it,” said Joyce, who was an Irish assistant coach to Keith Dambrot on the 2000 and 2001 teams.

“We believe that for all of these years we have had a lot of success and it has been something where you have kind of heard, ‘You know eight state championships, you know, well it is not in Division I.’

“I have always believed and continue to believe that we can play with anyone, and I think we have demonstrated that. Is there a chip on our shoulder, yeah definitely. Not just this year, but it is like that every year. We kind of feel like honestly that this program doesn’t get the respect that it deserves.”

St. V-M (23-3) will meet Powell Olentangy Liberty (24-4) in a Division I state semifinal at 8 p.m. Friday at the Schottenstein Center’s Value City Arena. The other state semifinal pits Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller (27-0) against Lakewood St. Edward (19-8) at 6 p.m.

“Our team has shown a lot of resiliency and poise throughout the season,” Joyce said. “The schedule has been exceedlingly hard. It was a tough, hard grind. At one point in the season I think we were 13-3, but we had only had four home games so we had been playing most of them on the road or on a neutral court.”

The Irish starting lineup features seniors Lunden McDay, Chris Painter and Keyshawn Jones and sophomores Malaki Branham and Seth Wilson.

“We haven’t been the best version of ourselves yet, and we are still finding ways to win,” Wilson said. “I feel like we are right there, and this weekend coming up when we play we are going to hit that spot and we are going to be the best that we can be.”

Seniors Darius Cone, Jordan Addison, Joshua Jones and juniors Isaiah Ingol and Marcus Johnson are key reserves.

“We have four guys averaging in double figures [scoring], and two other guys who are close to that,” Joyce said. “We spread the ball around. We are not dependent on any one person to lead us in scoring. It can be by committee, and that is kind of how it has been all season long, which has been great.”

McDay averages about 16 points, six rebounds and four assists per game. Wilson contributes about 13 points and five assists per game; Branham is at about 12 points and six rebounds and Painter chips in about 10 points and three assists.

“More importantly we have been a very good defensive team,” Joyce said. “… Chris and Darius are in their fourth year on the varsity team and are making their fourth final four run. Darius has made a big sacrifice for the team by coming off the bench.”

Joyce lauded McDay as “the leader of the team,” and said that Branham and Wilson “have really grown in this adverse kind of situation that we found ourselves in.”

Joyce then continued by saying “the adversity, I guess was all orchestrated by me, honestly. I put the schedule together, and once I looked at it I thought I was crazy.”

St. V-M’s season started with a win over Chicago Simeon (Ill.) and losses to Geneva Spire Institute and Moeller.

The Irish then won 22 of their next 23 games, with big wins over Cleveland Central Catholic, Garfield Heights, Cleveland St. Ignatius, Buchtel, Lorain, Cleveland Benedictine, Archbishop Hoban, Cleveland Heights Lutheran East, Lakewood St. Edward, Lyndhurst Brush and Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph. The other loss came against Kennedy Catholic (Pa.).

Tournament victories over Firestone, Ellet and Copley in the Barberton district, and over Olmsted Falls and Lima Senior in the Akron regional propelled St. V-M to Columbus.

“The path has definitely been harder, but coach Dru prepared us well and we continue to fight and we continue to play,” McDay said.

Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or mbeaven@thebeaconjournal.com.