The Columbus North-Columbus East basketball game is marked on many coaches’, players’ and fans’ calendars before the season even starts.

Former East players Connor Umphress and Bryce Lienhoop remember playing in those highly anticipated games, but North got the best of the Olympians in the first round of the 2013 sectional. North’s Most Valuable Player that year, Evan Henry, helped lead the Bull Dogs to a sectional championship before losing to Franklin Central in the regional.

Now, Lienhoop, Henry and Umphress are teammates. They’re key players on a St. Francis team that is 12-2 and has been ranked in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in NAIA Division II for most of the season.

“Evan is a great competitor,” Lienhoop said. “That’s what really draws us to each other because we both really like to compete and just want to win.”

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Henry may have been rivals with Umphress and Lienhoop during games, but they could not have been any closer off the court. These three basketball standouts attended the same middle school together and Umphress’ father Wiley coached them in elementary basketball. They grew into childhood buddies well before they were adopted into the crosstown rivalry.

After four years of wearing an East jersey, Lienhoop, the 2014 Republic Player of the Year, decided to move to Fort Wayne to play at the University of Saint Francis alongside his rival and close friend Henry.

“(Knowing Evan was coming) definitely played a role in my decision to come to Saint Francis,” Lienhoop said. “I knew Evan was a great player, and getting Connor here the next year was a great addition. It’s good to be able to know some people when you’re going to college.”

Lienhoop and Henry wasted no time making a name for themselves as the new guys on campus their freshman year. Lienhoop led the team in blocks, while Henry shot 40 percent from 3-point range, hitting at least one 3-pointer in 10 consecutive games.

“We have the same goal everybody has coming in,” Henry said. “Make an impact right away and just play basketball that puts our team in position to win championships.”

Umphress was still finishing his senior season while Lienhoop and Henry were in college making an impact on the court. Umphress knew St. Francis would be a great fit for him because he enjoyed the fun he shared with his two friends off the court and figured he would be able to compete for a national championship with them on the court.

Now that all three of them are attending the same school for the first time since middle school, Henry said there is never a time when they are all not together.

When the three of them are not on the court, they are playing cards, eating together after practice or studying. Umphress and Henry live together, and Lienhoop is no stranger to their apartment. Sometimes they even watch some of their old North and East games on YouTube to bring back some of that crosstown rivalry they loved so much.

“We’re never bored,” Umphress said. “We’re always having fun, and we’re always doing something. It’s a really cool experience.”

Henry said their relationship outside of basketball helps them be there for one another when bad plays happen during games and in practice. They are usually always in sync with each other by knowing the exact spots each person likes the ball. Henry can make eye contact with Lienhoop during a game and will know where the other one is planning to be without saying a single word.

That type of unspoken trust and understanding was built over time when Henry and Lienhoop used to play AAU ball together. Umphress and Henry talk constantly on the court.

“From Day 1, it was like we have never been on opposite teams,” Henry said. “It was like we played together like we have been throughout our entire lives.”

Last year was Umphress’ first season as a Cougar, and St. Francis was three points away from accomplishing the goal he predicted a year prior. The Cougars went 33-5 and began the national tournament on a 12-game winning streak. The team advanced to the national championship as the NAIA D-ll No. 1-ranked team against No. 5 Indiana Wesleyan.

St. Francis already had beaten Indiana Wesleyan in a one-point game two weeks prior and two more times before that. The Wildcats had enough losing to the same team and pushed St. Francis to the last seconds of the game before pulling out the 69-66 victory for the national title. Lienhoop was the second-leading scorer for the Cougars in the game with 15 points and added two blocks.

The Cougars have their mind set on making it back for the second year in a row and have a good chance of doing just that. They were ranked No. 2 in the nation before losing their most recent game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to No. 10 ranked IU-East, a team they blew out 79-55 in last year’s tournament.

“We want to win the national championship every year,” Umphress said. “We don’t expect to go undefeated. Our league is just too tough, we’re going to have games like this where we lose. We just have to battle though all this and win the conference and the national tournament.”

Three players who were once a part of one of the biggest rivalries in Columbus are 14 games into their second season together with hopes of returning back to their hometown with a championship ring.

The Columbus Connection

Name: Bryce Lienhoop

High school: Columbus East

College: St. Francis

Year: Junior

Height: 6-foot-6

Position: Forward

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Name: Evan Henry

High school: Columbus North

College: St. Francis

Year: Junior

Height: 6-foot-1

Position: Guard

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Name: Connor Umphress

High school: Columbus East

College: St. Francis

Year: Sophomore

Height: 6-foot-5

Position: Guard/forward