PRICE HILL - The colors for Friday night's hardwood heroes at The Pit were appropriate as always. Elder was lined with purple, St. Xavier was in road blue and the black and blue physical play of the Greater Catholic League-South began for 2021.
Joe Schoenfeld's Panthers had the advantage most of the way, but not without a predictable comeback from the Bombers of North Bend Road. In the end, 55% shooting prevailed with the Panther defense holding St. Xavier to just 6-of-24 three-pointers for the key opening win.
It was St. Xavier's first loss of the season, while Elder went to 9-1 and appears to have gathered back some momentum after a disappointing start to 2021 when they lost a home game to Turpin 52-50 Jan. 2 on a buzzer-beater.
Prior to that, the Panthers had seven consecutive double-digit victories. In the most recent rankings, they were voted No. 9 in the year's opening Ohio Associated Press poll.
"We guard well, competed on the boards and ran some good offense," Schoenfeld said. "They're a very good team and we're happy to get that win. When the GCL games happen, it's a battle. It's a battle on the glass, a battle to get stops on defense and get enough offense to get shots."
St. Xavier's 28-24 halftime deficit was their first of the year. The Bombers have not won a GCL-South title since 2005 before some of their current players could walk. That's the ultimate goal of Bombers coach Michael Noszka and well as Elder's Schoenfeld.
The Panthers last shared the GCL-South with Moeller and La Salle in 2015 and 2016. Carl Kremer's Moeller Crusaders have won the last four outright.
Friday night, Elder had to rely on some football talent as Appalachian State signee David Larkins came through with 14 points and six rebounds. Junior Andrew Harp had the game's opening five points, then didn't score again until the fourth quarter. Still, he finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Junior Sean Keller also chipped in 13 points with a trio of trifectas. Again at Elder, it's not one standout player, but a collection of hard-nosed kids fighting for Purple Pride.
"We're lucky that we have kids that buy into, 'We're going to do this as a team,'" Schoenfield said. "If one guy has an off night, there's someone there to pick him up so there's not a ton of pressure on any one of the guys."
Larkins, Harp, Scott Nieman and Michael Kirch brought the gridiron mentality Friday night. Nieman made all of his shots and Kirch came off the bench when St. Xavier had pulled within a point at 29-28 and chucked in back-to-back buckets.
"That's what I love about this league, it's just physical and I wouldn't want it any other way," Larkins said. "I try to use it (his 6-foot-5, 230-pound size) to my advantage just trying to body everyone inside. I think I'm stronger than everybody."
St. Xavier's Kobe Rodgers finished with 24 points with a flurry of late scores. Rodgers is third in the league in scoring, second in rebounding and tops the league in assists (with Elder's Keehan) and steals.
Rodgers is committed to Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, which does have some Greater Cincinnati ties. Alex Mangold of Lakota West and Mason's Eddie Puisis play there.
"I would tell you that I thought the game at Elder would be one of the toughest we'd have all year," St. Xavier coach Michael Noszka said. "You score 60 points you should be able to win. We get them back at our place in three weeks, so we'll see."
The Bombers get a crack at Moeller Jan. 22, a week after Elder hosts the Crusaders who are ranked No. 2 in Ohio and are eyeing another state run after being cut short by the coronavirus pandemic last Match.
"We've got a couple of more games between now and then but they're certainly a very, very good team with a lot of good players," Schoenfeld said of the match with Moeller Jan. 15. "I think we've got guys that are going to compete. We look forward to the opportunity. We've got good balance. We score inside and we can score outside. We need to be a good balanced team and I think we are this year."
Schoenfeld wishes the stands were packed like they used to as he believes he has a team Elder fans would like to see. For now, it's family members and streamed broadcasts.
"There's nothing like a good GCL-South Friday night game," Schoenfeld said. "To play on the court is good but it's fun if you can share it with a lot of people."
ELDER 15 13 12 27 67
ST. XAVIER 13 11 12 24 60
Elder - Miller 1 2 4 Keller 4 2 13 Harp 3 5 12 Larkins 6 2 14 Keehan 3 5 11 Walker 0 2 2 Busam 0 1 1 Nieman 3 0 6 Kirch 2 0 4
St. Xavier - Kirby 0 2 2 Ragio 1 2 5 Rodgers 9 4 24 Semona 4 1 10 McClure 4 2 10 Vanover 1 3 6 Mbui 1 0 3