ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Martins Ferry head coach Jeff Sabatino doesn't even remember the exact year that his Purple Riders last played for an Eastern District championship.
The last appearance is now moot because the Riders will play for the right to advance to the Division III regional Friday night after securing a convincing 58-39 victory against overmatched Coshocton Tuesday night on the campus of Ohio University Eastern.
While some might be a bit surprised that the now 13-8 Purple Riders have navigated their way through three tournament games already, don't begin to count Sabatino as one of those.
MARTINS FERRY’S Cody Schau fires a shot towards the basket Tuesday night at Ohio University Eastern. He scored 29 points to lead the Purple Riders to the Division III?District Tournament finals.
"We absolutely thought we'd be in this game (on Friday)," Sabatino said. "This is not a surprise to us. Think about our schedule. The last three years we've had to slug it out against teams that are really, really good. We thought we had a chance to make a run last year."
Actually, when you figure the Riders have a player in senior Cody Schau, who averages close to 30 points a game, and a front line that is enormous by Division III standards, it's really not that hard to surmise.
It was those factors that came up big once again. Schau did yeoman's work early as the Riders struggled offensively at the outset. He scored 15 of their 21 first-half points.
"We didn't play that well in the first half," Sabatino said. "We got good looks, but missed shots. We missed free throws, so we went in and cranked it up a little bit at halftime. I thought the first three minutes of the second half would be the indication of whether or not they'd be able to hang around or not."
With the Riders owning a 21-14 upperhand at the break, the Riders took the message from their heard coach to heart. Ferry scored 19 of the 23 points in the period and simply dominated on the interior.
Coshocton struggled mightily from the floor in the third panel and there were no second-chance opportunities thanks to the work of junior post Robert Vargo, who scored eight of his 12 points and grabbed nine of his 15 boards in the period.
Senior Tyler Strama, who was saddled with two quick fouls, got going with two buckets in the third and Isiah Sears closed the period when he kissed home a buzzer beater from just inside halfcourt.
"The first three minutes of the third we played really well and that was pretty much it," Sabatino said.
The lead swelled to as many as 27 in the fourth after Schau got free for a one-handed flush. Schau finished with 29 points and six rebounds. Vargo's production was Schau's biggest complement on the stat sheet.
Savvy sophomore point guard Jake Barritt turned in an exceptional floor game. He had only three points, all of which came at the line, but he had eight assists and eight rebounds. Plus, he never let the Redskins' pressure bother him.
Senior Tanner Cognion led Coshocton with 13 points.
Though the Riders had little trouble in dispatching a Redskins' squad, which finishes the season at 10-15, Sabatino found plenty to critique.
"We were sloppy," Sabatino said. "I think some things might have been a little easy for us today, but I didn't think we were in sync running our stuff or playing defense. Obviously, the result is good, but I don't know if the method was as good as I would like."
IN TUESDAY'S OPENER, Garaway owned a seven-point lead at halftime and seemed to make a play each time it needed one as it pulled away from Buckeye Trail.
The Pirates are now 20-4 on the season, while the Warriors close at 17-8.
Garaway was led by Duane Troyer's 22 points. Winston Mullett had 12 and Tyler Walter added 11 for the Sugarcreek-based outfit.
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