On Friday night, four years after competing in its first district championship game and falling short to Greenfield McClain, the Vinton County High School boys basketball team may be able to answer that for itself. That’s because the Vikings are once again facing the McClain Tigers, and are once again doing so in the Division II district championship tilt.
McARTHUR — In this, a political year, the question is often asked:
Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
On Friday night, four years after competing in its first district championship game and falling short to Greenfield McClain, the Vinton County High School boys basketball team may be able to answer that for itself.
That’s because the Vikings are once again facing the McClain Tigers, and are once again doing so in the Division II district championship tilt.
Four years after their greatest advancement in postseason tournament play, the Vikings try to take the next step and capture their first ever district championship in boys basketball.
They’ll meet McClain, no stranger to the district final, on Friday night at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens. Tipoff time is set for 8:15 p.m.
The winner advances to next week’s Division II regionals, which are also held at the Convocation Center.
A “Sweet 16” berth is something the Vikings have never enjoyed, but have discussed this week.
“We’ve talked about doing something that no boys team at Vinton County has ever done,” said Vinton County coach Matt Combs. “There’s two ways to look at that. We can either look at it as a challenge and try to reach our goal which is to win a district championship, or we can look at it as an obstacle that will intimidate us.”
A district championship is indeed the Vikings’ next step in building a basketball tradition.
The team has four won league championships in the past five years, and three sectional titles in the same time span.
After last season’s 22-1 campaign, which included a perfect regular season, the Vikings enter Friday’s affair at 21-1 and winners of their last 13.
The lone loss was at home to Huntington, who will play for a Division III district championship on Saturday.
For those serious into numbers, the Vikings have won 49 of their last 52 games overall.
Their only other district finals appearance was four years ago, when they lost to Greenfield McClain 65-59. Before meeting McClain, VCHS had won 17 straight games en route to finishing 20-4.
None of the players on the current roster were in high school then, but they do remember the Vikings reaching the district championship for the first and only time.
In that matchup on March 13, 2004, a Tiger freshman named Dante Jackson lit up the Vikings for 35 points.
Jackson went on to capture the Division II Associated Press Southeast District Player of the Year award three times, and is now a freshman at Xavier University and on the men’s basketball team.
Combs said at the time that “we’ll probably see him (Jackson) on television someday.”
Either way, fans have seen McClain — and legendary head coach Rick VanMatre — at the Convo on more than one occasion.
This year’s Tigers are 19-3, and are led by three players which average at least 12 points per game.
After four years of Jackson averaging over 25 points per night, six-foot-three inch senior Jeremy Webster is the team’s leading scorer this year.
Webster, who averages 13 points per game, is a two-time second-team all-district honoree from the Associated Press. Joining Webster on this year’s second team is 5-10 sophomore Lucas Polley, who averages 12 points per game.
A third all-district player is third-teamer Vinny Zollo, who averages 11.7 points and eight rebounds per duel.
Zollo, a 6-6 freshman, also led the team with 62 blocks. Polley is a pacer in steals (34) and assists (66).
Still, McClain is a program that emphasizes winning with defense and low-scoring games.
“Regardless of who they have on the team, they base their tradition on defense and fundamentals,” said Combs. “In that sense, although the personnel is different, the system is very much the same. We’re going to see a really really good defensive team like we did in 2004. We’re going to see a team that doesn’t beat themselves on offense. They execute and they do things right. They are always a difficult team to play. They do what they do well and they don’t beat themselves. You’re going to have to force them into mistakes because they won’t make them on their own.”
Mistakes are something the Vikings must avoid.
In its 60-59 win over Washington Court House in the semifinals, Vinton County dominated for three quarters and led 46-29 entering the fourth.
But the Blue Lions brought the full-court pressure in the final period, and the Vikings struggled to handle it.
Vinton County turnovers led to the Lions whittling away at the deficit.
“We played really well for three quarters and then in the fourth quarter, it was a combination of things,” said Combs of the Washington Court House contest. “Washington Court House played really well in the fourth quarter, they turned up the pressure and they are very athletic. Couple that with a couple bad decisions on our part. In tournaments, it only takes a couple things to go against you and you lose that momentum. Momentum is a big thing at this time of year.”
So is, according to Combs, protecting and rebounding the ball.
“I always look at the rebounding battle and not turning the ball over,” said Combs. “I don’t think it’s so much the tempo of the game. We’ve played in both kinds of games (pace) this year. It’s the fact that we have to make good decisions with the ball, be able to rebound, have good shot selection and then hit those shots.”
Because, expect the Tigers to bring both half-court and full-court pressure upon the Viking guards.
“We’ve seen teams this year bring good on-ball pressure and good half-court defense at us that we’ve handled. It just so happened the other night night we didn’t handle it well,” said Combs. “And Greenfield, in terms of half-court defense, does it as well as anybody. We’re going to have to be on top of our game, but at the same time, I think we’re capable of handling pressure and getting the job done.”
McClain will certainly contest the Vinton County three-point shooters, with seniors Ryan Stewart and Andrew Eberts being challenged on almost every attempt.
The three-point goal has become a staple for the Vikings in Combs’ eight years on the bench.
This season, Stewart sank 63, en route to averaging 13.6 points per game and landing second-team all-district honors. Against the Blue Lions, he hit four triples.
Eberts added 37 as part of his 11-point average. Eberts ended up on the AP Honorable Mention list.
Even the 6-5 standout senior center Dustin Guthrie has seven trifectas. Sophomore point man Andy Grillo also has seven.
However, look for Grillo and the other guards to establish Guthrie inside. The two-time Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division Player of the Year and two-time first-team all-district selection averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in the regular season.
Both were easily team-highs, as were his 23 blocked shots. He also shot a team-best, and a sizzling, 65-percent from the field.
Guthrie, Stewart, Eberts, defensive specialist Ben Batey and reserve Michael Dixon are the five Viking seniors. The senior class is a staggering 43-2 the past two seasons.
Combs said he still wants to be coaching that fivesome next week.
“You hate to see it end, and when that time does come, it’s going to be tough to see those guys go,” he explained. “They’ve been a fun group to coach and I’ve had fun being around them. Those kids are just winners and they’ve proven that in four years here. And we’re going to get another shot at it come Friday night.”
Another shot at a district championship — and a shot at school history with a regional berth.
“Winning a district championship is our goal,” said Combs. “Knowing what’s at stake, I expect our kids to come out excited and focused just like they have all year.”
The winner of Friday’s final faces the other Division II district champion from the Convocation Center in the regional.
Friday’s first district championship features highly-touted Chillicothe against Logan Elm. Those two teams will play at 6:15 p.m.
All four teams in the two district championship games made up last season’s semifinals. Chillicothe defeated Vinton County while McClain defeated Logan Elm.
This season, two Division II teams will represent the Southeast District in the “Sweet 16” instead of one. The other two squads will represent the East District at Steubenville.