To say last season was a special one for Martins Ferry would be understating the achievement.
Veteran Coach Jeff Sabatino weaved his coaching magic once again in leading the Purple Riders to the Division III Sweet Sixteen. A loss to eventual state qualifier Ironton (23-2) in Athens did little to dampen the spirits of a successful campaign.
It was the Purple's first regional trip since 1998, and marked the third time Sabatino has guided his alma mater to the regional tournament.
T-L Photo/SETH STASKEY
PICTURED IS the 2013-14 Martins Ferry basketball team. Front row, from left, are head coach Jeff Sabatino, Arjay Burress, Joel Shane, Jake Barritt, Kylil Bass, Ethan Baire, James Edwards and assistant coach Derek Edwards. Standing, from left, are assistant coach Ron Hill, Izzy Phillips, Kyle Rine, Matt Barbour, Emilio Appolloni, Robert Vargo, Josiah Burress, Lucas Agnew and assistant coach Mikale Roby.
"I think it was a product of how hard those guys worked and how they sacrificed their personal goals for team success," said Sabatino, entering his 38th year of hoop coaching, the last 22 as head man of the Purple Riders. "They bought into their roles for the good of the team. We worked very hard to attain what we achieved. It is difficult to get kids to buy in for what we needed to do."
Three starters return from last year's 14-10 upstart crew, serving as the foundation to build on last year's success. But two major cogs have graduated, leaving cavernous voids.
Cody Schau was an All-Ohioan performer. The 6-2 dynamo averaged some 28 points and 10 rebounds a start. He was a 1,000-point scorer and unquestionably one of the premier players in the OVAC. He is now an OUE hoopster.
"It is impossible to replace a player like Cody. He was good for 20-plus points, seven or eight steals and double-figure rebounds every game," Sabatino said. "Cody left everything on the floor. He was a tremendous player for two years."
If Schau's loss was not enough to deal with, Sabatino must also replace Tyler Strama. The rugged 6-3 post averaged some 18 points a game the last two campaigns while also pulling down double-figure rebounds per start.
"Tyler is one of my all-time favorites. He played through various injuries all season. He was never physically right," Sabatino noted. "He was special when it came to tournament time. He was big in critical games. We must replace two special players."
One can only wonder how much the Purple could have achieved if Taylor Shane was healthy. The athletic point guard missed the entire season with a knee injury after starting at the point as a junior. Shane is now golfing collegiately.
"We have a paradox this season. Out of our top seven right now, four are sophomores," Sabatino said. "They, however, played as freshmen in varying degrees. We are young but with some experience.
"We will be putting our young kids against some senior-laden teams. But we hope that regional experience wins out," he added. "I am excited about this year's team."
Returning as starters are senior Robert Vargo, junior Jake Barritt and sophomore Emilio Appolloni.
Vargo, coming off a tremendous grid season, is a man amongst boys. The 6-6, 245-pounder is a double-double machine. He averaged 14 points and 11 boards as a junior. His broad shoulders will be counted on to fill much of the scoring lost through graduation.
"Robert is a multi-faceted player. It starts with his intelligence. He may be the smartest player I have ever coached and it converts into basketball intelligence. He directs us on the floor. He is a coach on the floor and a quarterback," Sabatino offered. "He is easy to coach. He does what you ask him to do. He is our leader and everyone knows that. Robert is as good a back-to-the basket player as we have had and is a textbook defender. Robert will be as good a player as there is in the OVAC this year."
Barritt returns to run the show at point guard.
The 5-8 guard enjoyed a stellar season running the Purple offense. He averaged eight points, seven assists and five steals as a sophomore.
"Jake had to tote the mail after Taylor got hurt and it paid dividends. He is an extremely hard worker and buys into what we are selling," Sabatino said. "Jake started a few games as a freshman and acquitted himself very well. He runs the show and does what we need to do," he added. "I look for his scoring to increase this year while providing floor leadership."
Ferry boasts one of the OVAC's tallest players in Appolloni. The 6-8 forward started all 24 games as frosh. He averaged seven rebounds and four points a game while recording 56 blocked shots.
He enters his sophomore campaign a vastly improved player, after helping his AAU team to a second-place national finish this summer. Vargo and Appolloni should prove a menacing defensive tandem.
"E is one of the hardest-working players we have ever had, especially in the off-season when sometimes it is hard to get kids to hone their skills. He will be able to return to a more normal position of post this year after playing outside last season," Sabatino said. "He is as good a passer as you will find and this year is now able to put the ball on the floor. Basketball has become his identity."
Moving into the starting lineup will likely be explosive letterman Arjay Burress. The 5-11 guard saw extensive time off the bench a year ago, bringing much athleticism to the floor, reflected by his 1,000-yard rushing campaign this grid season.
"Arjay is currently nursing a football-related injury. Athleticism is his strength," Sabatino said. "Arjay dives all over the floor and gets loose balls.
"He is our best perimeter defender. Arjay is quick, strong and runs the floor extremely well while doing a lot of intangibles. He has worked on mid-range jumper."
Sabatino likes to use a seven-man rotation. Those five-to-seven spots will be filled by James Edwards, Lucas Agnew and Kylil Bass.
Agnew is a 6-1 junior swingman.
"His body has really developed. Football has helped him," Sabatino said. "Lucas features much more strength and thickness which enables him to play with a little more abandon. He also has improved his jump shot."
Edwards boasts boundless potential. The 6 ft. sophomore showed his poise and talent when he was called on to lead the Ferry gridders to a comeback win at Indian Creek, coming via his late-game touchdown pass.
Edwards is the Purple Riders' best outside shooter. He will provide the Riders with offensive firepower.
"James is a natural scorer. He has found a way to score at all levels. The stage is never too big for him," Sabatino said. "He came off the bench to hit two crucial free throws in district tournament."
Bass has been a most pleasant surprise. The quick-footed sophomore has grown several inches to 5-11 and is a relentless on-the-ball defender.
"Kylil is great on-ball defender who has improved his game tremendously," Sabatino said. "He has incredibly long arms and can deny the pass. He handles the ball well and his shooting has improved."
Additional depth will come in the form of Josiah Burress, Joel Shane and Matt Barbour, all non-letter-winners.
Burress is a a 6-3 junior forward. Shane is a 5-9 sophomore guard. Barbour is a 6-2 tough-minded sophomore, who enjoyed some quality late-season football success.
Rounding out the varsity roster are 5-10 sophomore guard Ethan Baire; Wheeling Park transfer Izzy Phillips, a 5-10 quick and athletic guard; and 5-11 junior Kyle Rine.
The Purple Riders will also have a full freshman squad this winter with its own schedule.
Ferry opens the campaign on Friday, Dec. 6 at Richmond against Edison. After another road assignment at St. Clairsville on Dec. 10, the Purple Riders will make their home debut on Dec. 13 against Buckeye Local.
In addition to the Buckeye 8 card, Martins Ferry faces a formidable out-of-league card, featuring Steubenville, Shadyside and Wheeling Central.
Sabatino, who is closing in on the coveted 300-win plateau, is assisted by a quality and veteran crew. His lieutenants include Ron Hill, Kim Appolloni, Mikale Roby and Derek Edwards.
The junior high staff includes Jeremy Shrodes and Jimmy Hood.