The further teams get along the Ohio tournament trail, the bigger the challenges become.
Martins Ferry's next challenge comes in the form of 21-2 Ironton in Wednesday's Division III Regional Tournament at Ohio University in Athens and can be looked at as nothing short of an acid test.
The Purple Riders, however, are growing accustomed to being the underdog, so when they clash with highly talented and athletic Ironton, it'll be just like another day at the office.
PICTURED ARE the Eastern District Division III champion Martins Ferry Purple Riders. Front row, from left, are Jake Barritt, Cody Schau, Tyler Strama, Robert Vargo, Emilio Appolloni and Taylor Shane. Middle row, from left, are Jimmy Edwards, Lucas Agnew, Arjay Burress, Kyle Rine and Isaiah Sears. Standing, from left, are head coach Jeff Sabatino, Evan Reese Jr., assistant coach Ron Hill, Josiah Burress, Dustin Schau, Joel Shane, assistant coaches Mikale Roby, Kim Appolloni and Derek Edwards.
"I just love this team's attitude right now," said Purple Riders' head coach Jeff Sabatino, who has now directed his alma mater to the "Sweet 16" three times in his highly successful career. "People didn't think we could beat Fort Frye or Garaway and now people think no one can beat this Ironton team, so really we'll go down there with nothing to lose. We're playing with confidence and I don't think we'll be intimidated."
The Purple Riders will try to become the first team from the Buckeye or Mountain State to defeat Ironton this season. The Tigers' only two losses came during the Junior Orange Bowl Classic in Florida.
"We know we're facing an up-hill climb," Sabatino said. "Some people talk about Ironton like they're the Lakers, and I really can't find anything to argue against that. They've just been murdering teams in the tournament."
Ironton has reached its third regional in the last four years on the strength of convincing victories against Wheelersburg (49-39), North Adams (80-33) and Chillicothe Zane Trace (69-45) in last Friday's district title game.
"It's always special to be in the regional," said Ironton head coach Mark LaFlon, who is in his eighth season at the helm. "Everyone's goal is to make to Columbus and we've talked about that, but our guys have done a great job of taking it one game at a time."
The Tigers came up one win shy of qualifying to the state tournament last season when they fell to Portsmouth in the regional title game.
Ironton is led by a talented senior duo. Guard Zac Carter (5-9) was named Southeast District Player of the Year after a season in which he stuffed the stat sheet to a tune of 24.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3 steals a game. Athletic enough to dunk with two hands, Carter is also lethal with a mid-range jumper.
"Carter is a handful," Sabatino said. "A lot of people think he's the best player in the state of Ohio in Division III and I can't argue it. He does so many good things for their team."
His front-court mate is 6-6 senior southpaw Trey Fletcher, who averages 20.5 points and 7.2 rebounds a night.
"Fletcher is a prime-time player too," Sabatino said. "He moves really well, shoots the ball well and is a load on the inside."
The Tigers' third-leading scorer is senior Trevor White (6-4), who averages 10 points a game and 7.5 rebounds. He's also the Tigers' best defender, which means he could draw the assignment of guarding Cody Schau, who fills up the stat sheet himself.
Rounding out the Tigers' starting lineup are senior Josh Glover (5-11) and senior Aaron Stephens (6-4).
"Our big advantage throughout the tournament has been our size and our ability to rebound," Sabatino admitted. "But, these guys are just as big as us and probably a step quicker. I am not sure how we'll react to that."
The thing that concerns LaFlon the most about Ferry isn't necessarily any one particular player, per se. However, it's the fact that the Riders have several guys playing very well.
"The fact that they're playing their best basketball of the season makes them very dangerous," LaFlon said. "They've got good size, good length and we can't get caught just concentrating on Schau, who is extremely talented. Because, they're certainly more than just him."
Schau is the unquestioned offensive leader for the Riders. He's scoring a shade under 27 points a game. He's only been held under 20 once and that was in last Friday's district final when he netted 16. He's a solid rebounder, defender and distributed the ball well in the win against the Pirates.
On the interior, rugged junior Robert Vargo turned in one of his best games of the season against the Pirates. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds. He's complemented well by senior Tyler Strama, who is another blue-collar type player. He's been slowed at times this season by injury, but has been crucial in the Riders' tournament run.
Completing the front line is 6-8 freshman Emilio Appolloni, who alters a lot shots on the defensive ends.
Sophomore Jake Barritt is a facilitator at the point-guard spot.
"I think this game is going to be a battle inside," LaFlon said. "It's going to be a tough, tough game in the paint. This is going to be a challenge, but that's just what you'd expect in the regional."
The Riders' top subs are Arjay Burress and Isiah Sears.
"We play two sophomores and two freshmen, so for these kids this trip is like going to Disneyland," Sabatino said. "I've been through this before, but it's been a while. It's just great to see how excited the kids are and how appreciative they are of this chance and the support from the community. We've got a bunch of young pups, who I don't think will be intimidated by anyone. We just need to get the game to our liking. It's important for us that this game doesn't become a track meet."
The survivor of Ferry and Ironton will return to the Convo Saturday evening to meet the winner of Oak Hill and Piketon, which clash in the nightcap Wednesday. Tipoff for the regional final is set for 7:30.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org