When the tournament opened in Division III some three weeks ago, most thought it was a wide-open field in the Eastern District.
That's proven to be extremely accurate as the field has been paired to just two.
The survivors thus far are Martins Ferry and Garaway.
MARTINS FERRY senior Robert Vargo will be one of the players to watch in tonight’s Division III?Eastern District championship game tonight at Ohio University Eastern. Vargo needs five points this evening for 1,000 in his career.
They'll meet this evening, at 7, inside the Health and Physical Education Center on the campus of Ohio University Eastern to determine the champion and who represents the East District in next week's 'Sweet 16' at Ohio University in Athens.
"Basically all of the coaches felt the same way (at the sectional meeting) that there wasn't any team to be really scared of," Martins Ferry head coach Jeff Sabatino said. "We thought it would come down to who was playing well at that point. We liked our chances because we have a history of playing well at this time of the year."
The Purple Riders are seeking their fifth trip to the regional under Sabatino's watch when they take on a Pirates' team that's been a perennial entrant in the district final.
However, Garaway head coach Dave Shutt and his coaching staff weren't exactly sure if this Pirates' team, which was hit hard by graduation, would grow up quite fast enough to make a March run.
"We played in a holiday tournament about the midway point of the season and didn't play very well," Shutt recalled. "We had a meeting with the kids, talked some things over and really from that point on, it started clicking for us."
As you'd expect with such a balanced bracket, both teams have had to survive and advance during the three prior tournament games.
"Our philosophy helps us," Sabatino said. "Being crazy in an up-and-down game doesn't always work that well in the tournament. Being patient, playing good defense and having an ability to knock down free throws are the ingredients for success in the tournament."
The Purple Riders eliminated Monroe Central in OT, hung on a week ago to beat Buckeye Trail to get to the district and then knocked out top-seeded Union Local, which had beaten Ferry twice during the season.
"Garaway is kind of in the same situation and we were actually probably less of an upset than their win," Sabatino said. "Our kids are familiar with Union Local, we'd played them in two tight games, but Garaway didn't have that luxury with Fort Frye."
The Pirates had little trouble with Shenandoah in their tournament debut. They then outlasted St. Clairsville in double OT and hung on to beat Fort Frye in Tuesday's district semifinal.
"We knew we'd have to play a really good game to beat Fort Frye," Shutt said. "We hoped to negate some of what they like to do with our defensive schemes and it worked. We shot a litle bit better and here we are. We're certainly excited to be in this position."
Both teams have been involved in grind-it-out, defensive, low possession games along the tourney trail. Neither coach expects that to change tonight.
"I am not sure either team wants to get into a track meet," Shutt said. "At this point, it doesn't matter if you win by one point or 30."
The Riders' ability to stay focused on their principles and the gameplan is the bigget key, according to Sabatino.
"We're more of an execution team now," Sabatino said. "Making the extra pass is important for both teams and sticking to the game plan defensively and trying to execute are what have gotten us here and will continue to be important."
The Purple Riders do have the "wild card" according to their coach in senior power forward Robert Vargo, who is averaging 17 and 12 on the season and was named Eastern District Player of the Year. Vargo needs just five points to reach the coveted 1,000-point mark for his career.
"We won't hesitate to go in there and allow him to choose what he wants to do," Sabatino said. "He's a great leader and deserves that kind of consideration (on offense)."
While the Riders rely on Vargo more times than not, he's not alone. Sophomore Emilio Appolloni turned in a solid performance against the Jets as did classmate James Edwards.
Junior point guard Jake Barritt isn't asked to score much, but he's a catalyst on both ends of the floor. Arjay Burress has a strong ability of scoring around the bucket.
"A couple of our kids played in that game last year, so they have some familiarity with some of these guys," Shutt said. "Vargo is a handful. The other kids all do their jobs, too."
The Pirates are led by Sam Gebhardt, who nets 11.5 points a game. Dallas Foster (10.5) and Josh Werker (9) round out the top three scoring options. Freshman Joel Honingford will be charged with banging with Vargo on the interior. Ty Hamsher rounds out the starting five for the Pirates.
The winner will return to the court on Wednesday, March 12 at 6:15 p.m. against the winner of the Athens 2 district. Those district semifinals won't be played until Saturday.
and the title game on Sunday at 4.