In a game where Nick Grathwohl struggled for the first half, a player better known for his defense and rebounding came to Southold’s rescue on Wednesday afternoon.
John Kaelin turned out to be the unlikely hero, scoring eight of his 10 points in the second quarter to help the First Settlers register a 51-30 victory over Smithtown Christian in the Suffolk County Class CD boys basketball final at Centereach High School.
How unlikely? The 6-2 junior forward said he averages just under two points a game.
After coming off his heroics, which included an 11th-hour trey and a season-high 30 points in the Class C final against Pierson on Feb. 14, all eyes naturally were on Grathwohl. The senior guard, however, hit only one of 10 attempts for two points in the opening half.
“Honestly, I thought Nick was going to be on his game tonight but first quarter, and I felt I had to step up and show what I had. I wasn’t really the biggest point scorer this season,” Kaelin said. “I was more of an all-around defense, rebounder. But I felt I had to step out of my shell and go and help out my team.”
He did — in spectacular fashion in the second quarter, when Kaelin had the first and last words. Southold led going in, 11-5. He connected on a shot from the key 21 seconds into the period. When Smithtown Christian (8-11) moved within 20-18 with 1 minute, 18 seconds remaining, Kaelin turned into a one-man wrecking crew. He hit a drive, put in a layup with 47.5 seconds left and sank a 15-footer with 36 seconds to go as the Settlers (13-8) led at halftime, 26-14.
“If I’m not hitting everyone else steps [up] and we just play our game,” said Grathwohl, who finished with 14 points. “We don’t come into the game and think, ‘Oh, if Nick’s not going to score, we’re going to lose.’ They think, ‘We’ve got to step up if he’s not there because he’s our teammate.’ We all pick each other up at the end of the day.”
After Kaelin was an important scorer on the junior varsity team, Southold coach Lucas Grigonis had hoped that he could duplicate that effort for the varsity. “He had some confidence issues when it comes to scoring,” Grigonis said. “Johnny can actually do a little bit of everything. He’s got a calm and cool to him. He makes everyone else relax and that’s huge to our team. He’s a strong defensive asset.
“He’s really a 10 [points] and 10 [rebounds] guy a game if he can do that. Some days it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. Something he has to work on for his senior year.”
Grathwohl rediscovered his scoring touch, knocking down two early buckets in the third quarter. Southold enjoyed a big enough that it did not score its first basket of the fourth quarter until Nick DeNicola’s driving one-hander with 43.7 seconds left. DeNicola had 11 points. Nick Carr then put an exclamation point on the win, canning a trey with six seconds remaining.
Grathwohl helped the Settlers extend their lead by sinking all of his six foul shots in the period.
The teams split their League VIII games this season. Asked what the difference was this time, Grathwohl replied: “When we played there, we didn’t push at all in transition. Today, we killed them on transition. We just wanted to come in here and run them out of the gym. That’s what we ended up doing.”
As a playoff game, the encounter was a bit unusual because it had no direct bearing on the Settlers’ participation in the state tournament. Yet, the contest was important enough to win, for pride, and to earn another competitive game before taking on Nassau County champion East Rockaway in the Southeast Region Class C semifinal at Centereach on March 10.
“I look it as it’s still a championship game,” Grathwohl said. “It’s a game we need to win. It’s a CD championship. We just want to keep going as far as we can.”
The Settlers earned an opportunity to play Class B champion Center Moriches (20-1) at Walt Whitman High School on Saturday at noon. Center Moriches defeated Southampton in the Class B final on Wednesday, 72-65.
“We’re playing ‘B’-class teams, which are better,” Grathwohl said. “So that will more prepare us for upstate if we ended up getting there.”
DeNicola agreed. “We took it serious,” he said. “We have a game March 10. We’re going to be playing basketball anyway. It’s nice to have this game to just to keep us sharp.”