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Central Catholic’s Marcus Lowry (33) challenges the shot of Grand Island Senior High’s Isaac Traudt (23) during the Heartland Hoops Classic in February at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island. The Crusaders will begin Class C-2 state tournament play on Thursday against Palmyra.

For the first time since finishing as the runner-up in 2008, the Grand Island Central Catholic boys basketball team will be involved in Class C-2 state tournament instead of C-1.

But for coach Tino Martinez, there aren’t many differences about what his Crusaders will face when the three-day event tips off Thursday in Lincoln.

“The thing that jumps out is there are very good teams and it’s similar to how things have looked in years past in C-1,” Martinez said. “The field is very competitive and very good. Obviously BRLD with their winning streak is a great team, and you have last year’s C-2 runner-up Yutan with most of its players back.”

GICC (23-3), which is the top seed and rated No. 3, begins its bid to claim the program’s second state championship at 2 p.m. at Lincoln Southeast against No. 9 Palmyra (19-6).

“I haven’t seen them in person before, but on film they have a couple of bigs who are very capable of scoring inside, and one of them can step out and shoot from the inside,” Martinez said. “They have guards who do a good job. I think we match up with them well.”

The Panthers are led by Kevin Kempkes, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who averages 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Andrew Waltke, a 6-3 sophomore guard, adds 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds while four more players produce at least 6.7 points per game.

Palmyra makes its first state appearance since 1989. The Panthers have received a boost from three senior transfers from Lincoln East – Trent Hammond, Dominic Darrah and Jackson Junker – who combine for 25.1 ppg.

Strong defense and a balanced offense have paid off all season long for Grand Island Central Catholic, which is undefeated against C-2 competition. The Crusaders’ losses came to Grand Island Senior High (which lost in overtime in a Class A district final), Class B state qualifier Wahoo (in triple overtime) and C-1 state qualifier Lincoln Christian, a loss they avenged in the Centennial Conference tournament championship game.

“With the strength of our schedule, we’ve played a lot of big games against conference teams and against other teams,” Martinez said. “We played a lot of high-caliber teams like Wahoo, Lexington and Grand Island Senior High. Playing those games will help us with the lights, atmosphere and environment at the state tournament.”

GICC has had that success while starting three juniors and two sophomores. Junior Koby Bales (6-2 forward) averages a team-high 11.9 points. Sophomore Isaac Herbek (6-3 guard) is right behind him with 11.6 ppg, three-year starting guard Russ Martinez adds 10.5 while 6-9 junior post Dei Jengmer chips in 10.0. The fifth starter, sophomore Marcus Lowry, adds 8.9 points and lockdown defense.

Tino Martinez said the Crusaders need to keep doing what they have done throughout the season to make a run in Lincoln.

“No. 1, it starts on defense,” he said. “We’ve really defended well against those teams on our tough schedule, which is probably the toughest of any of the C-2 teams in the state tournament. We have to keep defending well and make it hard for our opponents.

“Offensively, we’ve been playing well. We need to keep having good balance. It doesn’t matter who is getting the shots, it matters that we’re getting good shots. We need to keep shooting at a high percentage.”

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