THE ROAD to Athens, Ohio takes some two-plus hours from our area, depending on your departure venue. For a prep basketball team, it is a trek that takes months and months to navigate.
The Martins Ferry High boys' basketball team is heading to Athens as one of the Buckeye State's Division III "Sweet Sixteen." The Purple Riders will take on Lucasville Valley Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. in the Ohio University Convocation Center in a semi-final test.
Making the regional tournament is a notable achievement in Ohio. Each of the state's four divisions are stacked with more than 200 schools.
To reach the Sweet Sixteen in successive years is a rare accomplishment for an OVAC member. That is, however, what the Purple Riders can proudly lay claim to.
Coach Jeff Sabatino's charges have captured late-season lightning in a bottle once again. As a result, the Purple Riders are two wins away from basketball's promised land -- the state's Final Four.
The Purple Riders navigated through a talented and deep sectional-district format by defeating four higher seeds. One of those wins came against once-beaten and top-seeded Union Local.
Martins Ferry's return run to the regionals is a near mirror image of a year ago.
The Purple Riders scripted a modest regular-season 11-9 record, albeit against a tough schedule, while playing with a lone senior. Ferry's coaching staff did a masterful job of coaching up its youthful crew. The maturation process took hold in the post-season.
District Player of the Year Robert Vargo is the engine that drives the Purple. The 6 ft. 6, 250-pound senior leads a young but selfless, physical, focused and passionate band of teammates.
Martins Ferry is definitely a team on a mission. A year ago the Riders were pitted against juggernaut Ironton in the regional semifinals. The Tigers were a special breed.
The Purple Riders' task is not an easy one in Lucasville Valley. There are no creampuffs left in the Sweet Sixteen.
Lucasville Valley, however, is no Ironton. The 21-2 Indians survived back-to-back buzzer-beaters last weekend.
Martins Ferry will receive a stern test, but one we believe it will pass.
We wish the Purple Riders the best of luck while encouraging all Ohio Valley hoops fans to make the trek to Athens to support a special prep hoop team.