In more ways than one, the Vinton County High School boys basketball team is sailing into uncharted waters tonight. Not only are the Vikings playing in their first ever regional semifinal, but according to some observers, they are an overwhelming underdog against the Chillicothe Cavaliers.
Paul Boggs checks in with a preview of the game.
McARTHUR — In more ways than one, the Vinton County High School boys basketball team is sailing into uncharted waters tonight.
Not only are the Vikings playing in their first ever regional semifinal, but according to some observers, they are an overwhelming underdog against the Chillicothe Cavaliers.
However, as tournament basketball is often about upsets, the Vikings aim to upstage the Cavaliers in the Division II regional semifinals at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens.
Tipoff time is set for 6:15 p.m.
Vinton County, fresh off its first ever district championship in boys basketball, has the difficult task of ending Chillicothe’s run to the Division II state tournament.
The Vikings, despite their 22-1 record, No. 12 ranking in the final Associated Press Division II statewide poll, and league, sectional and district championships, are decided underdogs against the high-powered Cavaliers.
Of course, that’s often according to prognosticators and pundits along the Internet message boards.
In an interview on Tuesday, Vinton County coach Matt Combs said his team relishes the role of ‘David’ for once.
“Everyone expects them to win this game against us,” he said. “I told our kids that other than us and our fans, no one is giving us a chance. But that’s fine. We’ve had a target on us for so long, we’ll cherish the underdog role. All year long, we’ve talked about being focused and getting everyone’s best shot. The shoe is on the other foot now. Our kids, at practice, have really responded well to that. We’re playing hard and we’ve had good practices this week.”
The Vikings were the favorites to capture the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championship, and went 10-0 in the league for the second straight season.
In the past two seasons, they are a staggering 44-2, with back-to-back sectional titles and now a district championship.
The Vikings captured that first-ever district crown on the strength of rallying to edge Greenfield McClain 56-55 last Friday.
“Early on, you have to give a lot of credit to Greenfield. They played well and shot really well in the first half, and we just spent a lot of time handling their pressure that we forgot to play defense of our own,” said Combs. “At halftime, though, it seemed like our kids regrouped and a calming effect came over them. We went back out in the second half and really played well in the third and fourth quarters.”
Combs said, as a result of that victory, it’s been an ‘exciting’ week in Vinton County.
“The kids are excited, the fans have been great and the community has really been behind us which we really appreciate,” he said. “It is fun to do something for the first time. Just like back in 2004 when we went to the district finals for the first time. Everyone was real excited. This year, it’s the same way. We’re glad to be able to take the next step.”
That next step is the ‘Sweet 16’ against second-ranked Chillicothe.
The Cavaliers, which ended Vinton County’s season — and perfect campaign — last year in the district semifinals, are 21-2 overall.
Chillicothe went 13-0 in the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League, and has toppled the likes of Zanesville, North College Hill and Dayton Dunbar.
The Cavaliers defeated Dayton Dunbar at Wellston High School as part of the National Hoops Classic on Jan. 19. At the time, Chillicothe was ranked fifth in the state while Dunbar was Division II’s top-ranked team.
The Cavaliers also return most of their cast from last season’s Division II regional runner-up squad.
“We’ve said all along that they are the most talented team in the Southeast District in any division,” said Combs of the Cavs. “And I don’t think anybody can make a reasonable argument against that. I’m not speaking for them, but in their minds, coming in, it’s state tournament or disappointment. They were one game away from it last year and they return pretty much everybody.”
Leading the way is five-foot-nine-inch senior Anthony Hitchens, the Associated Press Division II Southeast District Player of the Year.
Hitchens, who is headed to the University of Akron, averaged 21.6 points per game in the regular season along with three steals and three assists.
He is a three-time first-team all-district honoree while at Chillicothe.
He was joined on this year’s first team by Ray Chambers, a 6-7 senior center who averaged 16 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
Other all-district honorees include second-teamer Stu Beverly (9.2 ppg) and third-teamer Caleb Knights (6.0 ppg). Both stand 6-1 while Beverly is a senior and Knights a junior.
Beverly is regarded as a three-pointer shooter and Knights a top-notch defender. Knights also averaged four assists and three steals per game in the regular season.
Seth Dawes was named to the Honorable Mention list by the AP.
“Sometimes, there’s no magic answer to that question because they are just hard to guard,” said Combs, when asked how to account for all of the Chillicothe weapons. “Almost every team they’ve played this year hasn’t been able to do it.”
The Cavaliers’ only losses this season were the season opener to Brookhaven and the SEOAL Day of Champions championship game to Zanesville. Both were five-point losses, (73-68 to Brookhaven and 68-63 to Zanesville), as both Brookhaven and Zanesville are Division I programs.
However, the Cavaliers were almost ousted from the tournament by Logan Elm in the district championship. In fact, the Blue and White took the lead late and won 49-48.
The Chillicothe-Logan Elm affair was played prior to the Vikings’ game with McClain, so Combs got to see the Cavaliers up close on Friday.
He discussed any possible blueprint the Vikings can utilize. Logan Elm actually led by 10, 29-19, going into the final minute of the first half.
“Logan Elm and us are different styles of teams, but I think there are some things they did to Chillicothe that we can try to copy,” said Combs. “Logan Elm played a great game, and I thought Chillicothe struggled a lot on that particular night. Logan Elm did a nice job of making them shoot perimeter shots and Chillicothe really didn’t make them. Therefore, the game was close.”
Combs said the Cavs shot poorly against the Braves, but benefited from 21 points by Chambers en route to the come-from-behind win.
“I guess we can hope that they shoot that poorly again, but chances are they won’t,” said Combs. “When you are trying to pull an upset, there are some things that you have to make go your way. We’re going to have to play really good defense and try to slow down their high-powered offense. We can’t give them easy shots. If they shoot lights out, then you’re going to be in trouble anyway. All we can do is play the best defense we can play. Hopefully, they miss a few shots and we rebound them.”
Vinton County, led by standout center Dustin Guthrie and shooting guards Ryan Stewart and Andrew Eberts, has a high-powered offense of its own.
But the Vikings will certainly be challenged by the quickness and sweltering full-court pressure defense of the Cavs.
Vinton County struggled with full-court pressure against Washington Court House, and was tested again last week by a defensive-minded McClain club.
But Combs expects Chillicothe’s defense to be the most intense the Vikings have faced all season.
“Very similar to Greenfield, we’re going to see a lot of pressure. A lot of good, intense ball pressure,” said the coach. “We’ll probably see more full-court pressure than we did against Greenfield. Greenfield was really good at their scrimmage area or half-court stuff. Once again, our guards are going to have to be able to handle that. We have to limit turnovers.”
Those guards include Eberts, Stewart, the sophomore point man Andy Grillo and first-off-the-bench Ethan Allen.
Guthrie can also handle the ball for someone who is six-foot-five.
“It’s going to take a team effort. We can’t just depend on one guy to break that pressure,” said Combs. “I think we’re going to be at least prepared and ready.”
Combs explained that in preparation for the Cavalier pressure, the Vikings have been practicing against 6-on-5, 7-on-5 or even 8-on-5 lineups.
The outnumbered offensive lineups are designed to simulate the quickness and the number of hands the Vinton players may see when handling the Chillicothe defense.
“We’re working on it,” said Combs. “We’re doing some things to try and simulate the best we can of what we’re going to see. Their hands are quick, their feet are quick, and as a team, they are a step quicker than probably anybody you’ve seen the entire season. You can’t take a pass for granted, you can’t get careless with your dribble. They are just quick enough and athletic enough to go get it.”
It helps, though, that Vinton County played Chillicothe last season.
“At least our kids know what they are in for and up against,” said Combs. “It’s not going to be a situation where when you play them for the first time you are shell-shocked or anything like that. We know what kind of challenge it’s going to be, but so far, it seems like our kids are up for that challenge.”
The Vikings may also try and slow down the tempo, which they had some success in doing in last season’s district semifinal.
Combs also emphasized rebounding, especially the 6-5 Guthrie and 6-4 junior post Jake Prater against the 6-7 Chambers.
“They get off the floor well, especially Chambers,” he said. “They are just a good group of athletes. We’re going to have to box out and rebound well. I thought that hurt Logan Elm, in the second half especially. And at times this year, we’ve become a little lax in boxing out. We’re going to have to box out well to win this game.”
And, should the Vikings win this game, in many minds, they will have pulled off the ever-popular tournament upset.
“The pressure is on them,” said Combs. “Chillicothe is expected to not only beat us, but they are expected to go to the state tournament this year. We told our kids it’s an opportunity for us just the same. We’re excited about the opportunity and hopefully our kids will respond well to it. At this point, you don’t win games on paper. We’re going to do everything we can to win the game.”