Lutheran East Boys' Basketball Featured in CLHSA Article
Article by Jon Behm from the Cleveland Lutheran High School Association's Annual Report published in October 2021
There’s an old saying about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer.
However, what happens when that enemy becomes a friend?
You build a dynasty.
To say that Lutheran High School East boys’ basketball head coach Sam Liggins ’05 and Athletic Director Anthony Jones got off on the right foot would be one way to put it.
A more accurate way could be to say that a right foot was close to being involved.
“The first time we met each other, we were actually about to fight,” Liggins said with a laugh. “It was over a basketball game and things got heated. After the game we exchanged words and we came close to fighting.”
Fast forward 17 years, and the best friends are the cornerstones of a basketball renaissance at Lutheran East —one that has seen two state titles (2017, 2021), a state runner-up (2019) and a final four berth (2018) in the seven years they have been coaching together. Put another way, the Falcons have been to Columbus (or, as of 2021, Dayton) four of the seven years Jones and Liggins have helmed the program, with only a statewide tournament cancellation due to COVID stopping the fifth year in 2020.
“We’ve built a resume,” Jones said. “Now we’re going to sustain that. We want to be known as a school with a rich
basketball tradition. We want to make it so that the players we’re coaching now have kids and know that 13, 14, 15 years later they’re going to send their kids to Lutheran East. We want to be a place that, even in our worst years, it’s still a great year compared to others.
“We’re well on the path to making that a reality.”
From Panthers to Falcons
That fateful near-fight happened in 2004 in Euclid, when Jones and Liggins were 15-year-old juniors at Euclid High School. At the time, neither boy knew that they had just met their best friend.
“It’s weird,” Liggins said. “Ask me in that moment and I would have thought I’d never speak to him again. I definitely never would’ve imaged we would be where we are now and as close as we’ve been since that moment.”
Liggins, who had attended private school at St. John South Euclid and Cornerstone Christian Academy until his transfer to Euclid as a junior, believes that the altercation now feels like a natural way for their friendship to start.
“It just makes sense, right? We met on a basketball court,” Liggins said.
It was only a matter of time before the pair realized that their frustrations about what happened on the court weren’t a
difference, but rather an identical passion for the game of basketball and wanting to be successful. Once that clicked, there was no looking back.
However, the closeness of their friendship has not always translated to physical location. After one year at Euclid,
Liggins transferred to Lutheran East for his senior year because he believed it was best for his basketball future.
“I knew I wanted to do something after high school as far as playing basketball went,” Liggins said. “I knew after my year at Euclid that I needed to make a change if that was going to happen. That’s how I ended up spending my senior year at Lutheran East.”
The duo remained tight even without attending the same school, spending as much free time together as possible.
“He was pretty much at my house all the time,” Liggins said. “He’d spend the night like every other day, and we’d spend the entire weekend together.”
Liggins thrived at Lutheran East. He was named the Ohio AP Division IV Player of Year, averaging 21.4 points, 9.2 assists and 5.7 steals per game, while leading the Falcons to their first-ever state championship in 2005. Although the title was mired in some controversy.“We actually lost that state championship game,” Liggins said. “A week after we lost, it was reported that the team we played, Columbus Africentric, played two ineligible players. They had to forfeit all the games those players were in, which was most of their playoff run including the state championship. So, we were awarded the title.”
Looking back, Liggins believes it was almost a case of a story coming full circle for the Falcons.
“The year before I got there, Lutheran East had to forfeit their entire season,” Liggins said. “They had played some players that were ineligible. It’s pretty crazy to think that what happened the year before I got there was happening again, but this time in our favor. And I think it goes to show that doing things the wrong way won’t pay off.”Through it all, Jones watched as his friend experienced the success.
“I could not believe the run that they went on,” Jones said. “Jealous would probably be the word. I’m watching everything on the TV or in the stands, you know? But even then, I was just happy for him. He worked so hard for that. Before he even knew he was going to Lutheran East, he was working hard. He knew hard work was going to get him there and he wasn’t going to ever let them lose because he was outworked. I was so proud of him when they went to that final and proud to be his friend.”
After high school, the two briefly reconnected as classmates at Lakeland College before Jones continued to Ohio State and a job as the Sports Director for the Greater Cleveland YMCA while also serving as an assistant varsity coach at
Euclid High School.
Liggins moved on to Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, where he still ranks as one of the best to play for the Battlers. As of the end of the 2020-21 season, Liggins holds single-season ranks of second for field goals attempted (466), 3-pointers attempted (300), and 3-pointers made (129), fifth for points (602), fourth for made field goals (217), and eighth for scoring average (18.2). He followed up his career with four years of professional basketball overseas.
Through it all, though, Jones and Liggins made time for each other.
“You know, we weren’t in the same city anymore, but we still saw each other all the time,” Jones said. “He was coming up to Ohio State on weekends, spring break, whenever he could make it happen. He’d stay in my dorm with me and we just
always tried to make sure we were going home around the same time. We made sure distance wasn’t a problem and stayed connected.”
It’s that very connection that drew them back together when Ron Calhoun resigned as Lutheran East’s boys’ basketball coach in 2014.
“Lutheran East wanted an alumus who cared about the school and had a basketball background that would attract people to Lutheran East. Clearly, I check those boxes, right?” Jones said with a laugh. “They had Sam in mind, but when they reached out to him, he recommended me. I think he was worried about his qualifications at that point and really sold me as a great option.”
“You know, it’s kind of funny. I couldn’t tell you how many summer jobs or little things we’ve worked on together over the years. It just kind of makes sense that we’d make a career at the same school and work together now.”
“Ron Calhoun was my coach from fifth grade at St. John through my freshman and sophomore years at Cornerstone
Christian,” Liggins said. “I know he had put in a word that I could be a good fit to replace him.
“But Lutheran East needed a big change. I was pretty sure I could make that happen, but I was worried they might want
someone with more experience. That’s why I told Anthony he should go for the job, and that I would come with him.”
The coaching job was just the beginning for Jones, who was also offered the position of Athletic Director by then-principal Chris Steinmann ’00.
“It was that next day [that I was offered the coaching job],” Jones said of becoming Athletic Director. “Chris Steinmann calls me and asks what I thought of being the Athletic Director as well. I was hired as a coach on Thursday, and on Friday I was also the A.D. I’m so thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but, man, I didn’t realize then just how much responsibility came with being an Athletic Director.”
Building a Dynasty
Rebuilding the Falcons was not an easy task. Lutheran East was a decade removed from the 2005 state title and had only made it to regional play twice since winning it all, including a state semifinal appearance in 2009.
However, the program Jones inherited was far from a state contender. In fact, it wasn’t even a district contender. Lutheran East had won only three games in the 2013-14 season and hadn’t advanced out of sectional play—the first two rounds of the eight-game state tournament—in three years.
“It was bad,” Jones said. “We were honestly taking over one of the worst teams in Ohio. And I don’t say that lightly, but it was definitely not an ideal situation to take over unless you had a plan to turn everything around.”
Rebuilding the Falcons would involve a full culture and mindset shift that could take years. Being from the area, Jones knew that some good talent would be heading to Lutheran East soon. Talent, however, was just one piece of the puzzle. How to get that talent to play to its potential was where Liggins thrived.
“The thing about Sam that was key in those first couple of years is the way he develops kids,” Jones said. “He is one of the best basketball trainers in the entire state of Ohio. People don’t understand how important that is, to be able to develop
“He’s out there working with the kids. He doesn’t just stand there and watch. If they’re doing a drill, he does it with them. He’s out there actively teaching them the skills they need to thrive at basketball. Without him doing that, who knows where the program would be.”
The result? A first-round Ohio High School Athletic Association playoff exit—but certainly a large step in the right direction.
The plan was to craft Lutheran East into a perennial state title contender, and while a double-digit win season was a great first step, playing tough competition in the regular season and advancing in the playoffs would be next.
That’s exactly what happened in the second year under Jones. The Falcons went 20-5, advancing to a D-IV regional final
before bowing out to Cornerstone Christian.
The Falcons’ mindset and approach had changed. From there, it was only a matter of time before a state title was in the mix. However, Jones may have been the only one expecting what happened next.
Birth of a Dynasty
“It was unbelievable and kind of surreal,” Jones said. “We had a plan. When I took over, I told Chris Steinmann that we were going to win a state title by Year 3. That was our goal.”
March 25, 2017, at around 4 p.m., the Falcons earned their second state title, defeating Columbus Wellington, 43-38, to cap Jones’ third year in charge of Lutheran East’s program.
For Jones, it was an experience like none other—made better only by the fact that he and his best friend were sitting
“We cried like babies,” Jones said. “I watched him win that 2005 title over a decade ago and always kind of wondered what it was like to be there. In that moment, I knew what it was like, and to see Sam smiling and celebrating with me, with the team—it made an already great moment even more memorable.”
For Liggins, it was a moment to reflect on his journey, while watching and helping a friend achieve the goal of an elite-level high school basketball program.
“You’re in the books. You get to have a banner in the gym, go on the OHSAA site and see that you were the champion,”
Liggins said. “It was incredible to share this moment with him. Anytime you get to share your best moments with a loved one is an incredible gift.”
The Falcons were 20-9 in the 2016-17 season. Jones believes that it was the nine losses—all but one of which came against Division I or II opponents—that truly spurred Lutheran East to the title. “That was one of the things I knew we had to do,” Jones said. “We had to kind of fast-track the players development by putting them in games that we honestly knew we’d probably lose going in. We wanted to play St. Ed’s, St. Ignatius, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. We didn’t get them from the start, but I knew getting D-II and D-I teams on our schedule was going to be a big key to our development as a program.”
Changing of the Guard
The Falcons made another run for the title in 2018, advancing to the Division III State Final Four after being pushed a division higher due to the OHSAA’s new competitive balance initiative. Lutheran East lost to eventual state champion Cincinnati Deer Park to finish the season at 14-14.
Among those losses on the Falcons’ schedule were Division I powerhouses Lorain, St. Edward, and St. Ignatius.
“In those years we were still on the rise and kind of under the radar. It was easy to overlook us,” Jones said. “If you didn’t look at our schedule and see what we were doing, you’d wonder how we got there. But we knew there would be times where our record didn’t reflect how good our team was and that our regular season schedule would be tougher at times than the postseason run.”
Jones, however, knew that a change was coming.
“I was ready to hand it over after the state title,” Jones said. “Like I said before, being an Athletic Director is very time
consuming, and it was getting to the point where I had to make a change. With all that Sam was doing in practices and his leadership ability, I told him that I absolutely thought he was the guy who had to take the program over.
“We had won the state title and really done everything I had hoped to accomplish. And I think I loved being an Athletic
Director maybe even more than being a coach.”
Liggins, however, wasn’t as sure that he was ready. He initially turned Jones down and tried to convince him to stay on longer.
It wasn’t until Jones applied some pressure that Liggins knew he had to step up.
“I flat out told him that I was going to step down and he had a choice to make,” Jones said. “He could let the program and what we’ve worked hard on go to someone else who may have a different vision, or he could keep Lutheran East basketball relevant and one of the top programs in the state. In a way, I kind of forced him into it, but sometimes you just see that someone can be great at something, and you need to give them that push for them to see it themselves.”
“It’s always something Anthony wanted for me, but I never wanted to be a head coach,” Liggins said. “He told me that if I didn’t take it, someone else would. I couldn’t let that happen. This is home for me. So, I knew I had to take over to keep what we had built moving forward.”
In the end, it was a foregone conclusion that Liggins would take over. Just as Jones had supported Liggins for all his
major life achievements, Liggins was ready to be there for his friend as Jones was recently married and about to
welcome a second child into the world.
“He’s supported me through so much,” Liggins said. “There’s no way I wasn’t going to help him by stepping up when he told me it was now or never.”
A New Challenge
Liggins’ first task as head coach was to figure out how to keep the Falcons a top-tier program when the element of surprise was no longer there. After all, that’s what happens the state continually sees “Cleveland Heights Lutheran East” at the top of AP polls, All-Ohio teams, and on the list of teams heading to the State Final Four.
“You get to a point where the surprise is gone,” Liggins said. “We’re at that point. People know Lutheran East is going to be a tough game. Big schools want to play us. We get every team’s best every time we step onto the court, but we take that and use it as fuel.”
In his first season in charge, the Falcons went 22-9 and finished as the Division III state runner-up. Then came the season that no one could prepare him to coach.
Bumped up to D-II because of competitive balance, the Falcons were viewed by many as the best team in Ohio regardless of division. Lutheran East was well on its way to proving that, advancing to regional play following a 68-46 district final win over Glenville.
Then came 12:56 p.m. on March 12, 2020.
“All remaining #OHSAA winter tournaments are postponed until further notice. This includes boys’ basketball regionals and state wrestling, ice hockey, and girls’ basketball. Press release coming soon.” the OHSAA’s official Twitter account tweeted.
And just like that, the run was over.
“That one hurt,” Liggins said. “It was completely deflating. I feel like that team was the best we’ve ever had come through Lutheran East. Not even just on talent, but the character of the kids. That was a tough few days.”
Liggins knew that when they returned to the court for the 2021 season, the Falcons had to finish the job—not only for themselves, but for the seniors who lost their final shot.
“Those seniors were cheated,” Liggins said. “It’s what had to happen, but they had a moment stolen from them due to something outside of everyone’s control. And that’s part of life. But they had been to Columbus all their years, and this was their time to lead the program to a title. That one hurts. I remember tearing up when I had to tell them what happened.”
Back in Division III in 2021, the Falcons played like a team with unfinished business. Lutheran East was 9-3 in the regular season with losses to eventual D-II state champion St. Vincent-St. Mary, D-II regional finalist Akron Buchtel and D-I regional qualifier St. Edward. They turned it up a notch in the playoffs, cruising through sectional, district and regional play by a 45.2 average margin of victory, twice breaking 100 points in the process.
The Falcons would complete the job by defeating Ottawa-Glandorf, 58-52, in a state semifinal before claiming the 2021 D-III state title with a 61-56 win over Worthington Christian. The win not only continued the streak of excellence for Lutheran East, but gave Liggins access to an exclusive club of winning a state title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
“It’s cool, but it really hasn’t hit me yet,” Liggins said. “It’s cool to see the development and to know that I’ve gotten to the top three times in three different ways. A lot of people won’t ever get the chance to do that. And I’ve been fortunate to have the right people around me to help get to this point.”
And, just as Liggins had been there four years earlier, Jones was right there on the bench in Dayton, helping his best friend achieve a monumental victory.
“I thought it was just gratifying for him,” Jones said. “I don’t think people realized the weight that he was carrying on his shoulders to get it done. When we won the title in 2017, it kind of felt like people were wrongly overlooking how key he was. Now, no one could overlook how talented of a coach he is. He got his due and to be watching him through it all was something I’ll cherish forever.”
Continuing the Legacy
Seventeen years ago, two strangers nearly got in a fight.
Seventeen years later, two friends are continuing to fight—for their players, the continued success of Lutheran East boys’ basketball and the development of the Falcon athletic program as a whole.
“Every school has a sport that they are recognized for,” Jones said. “For us, it might be boys’ basketball, but that doesn’t mean boys’ basketball has to be the only success. One of the greatest things that I would like to achieve as an Athletic Director here at Lutheran East is to get all of our programs competing at high levels. If I can do that, it’s going to be tough ranking what I’m more proud of here: the boys’ basketball program or the growth of all our programs.”
The Falcons open their season with two showcases on Saturday 11/27 and Sunday 11/28, followed by their home opener on Tuesday, 11/30 vs. Trinity. Game times are 4:30 PM (freshmen), 6:00 PM (JV), and 7:30 PM (varsity). Full schedule can be found here.
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