The year was 1998.
Bill Clinton was president. The Denver Broncos were Super Bowl champions and singing legend Frank Sinatra died.
It was also the last time Martins Ferry advanced to the boys’ basketball regional tournament.
Was, however, is no more.
That 15-year Sweet Sixteen void was impressively filled Friday night at Ohio University Eastern, courtesy of a passionate Purple performance. Coach Jeff Sabatino’s charges punched their ticket to Athens via a 56-48 triumph over perennial power Garaway, before a large and vocal Purple Rider crowd.
Martins Ferry will now take its 14-8 mark to Ohio University, where it will face Ironton Wednesday in a 6:15 p.m. start.
“This feels special. I was fortunate to have two of my Ferry teams make the regionals early in my career and said ‘hey this is easy.’ I found out it isn’t. It’s been a long time coming,” Sabatino said. “We did it playing two freshmen and two sophomores at times which defies the odds.
“But our two seniors and one junior weren’t going to be denied. They took over when we needed them to,” he continued. “And our crowd was unbelievable tonight. Now we must get ready to play maybe the best Division III team in the state (Ironton.)
Sabatino was right on when he said his two seniors (Cody Schau and Tyler Strama) and junior (Robert Vargo) came up big. The trio combined for 47 points and dominated the final chapter.
The Purple also received exceptional point play from savvy sophomore Jake Barritt while 6 ft. 8 frosh Emilio Appolloni’s length proved problematic for the Garaway offense while fellow frosh Arjay Burress came off the bench to provide boundless energy.
Garaway checked out with a stellar 20-5 mark, a season which they went unbeaten in the Inter-Valley Conference. Coach Dave Schutt’s well-drilled Pirates advanced to Friday’s finals by taking out a fine Buckeye Trail team Tuesday.
“Ferry’s size was definitely an issue. Appolloni is 6 ft. 8, Vargo 6 ft. 6, Strama and Schau are both 6 ft. 3. That is a tough matchup for us,” Schutt said. “That is why we went zone in the first half to try and clog the paint. In the second half we wanted to pressure fullcourt so we switched to man. We turned them over several times in the third quarter but they did beat us for some easy buckets.
“What also hurt us is we didn’t make shots. We only made 25 percent of our threes. We had open looks, but just couldn’t knock the shots down,” he continued. “This is a special bunch of seniors. It was a good season but one with a painful ending.”
Garaway did start the game nailing treys.
The Pirates drained three treys in the first quarter en route to an 11-8 lead at the break. Ferry hurt itself with four miscues in the opening eight minutes.
Ferry responded with a fine second quarter. The Purple Riders, receiving scoring from five players and using their impressive size on the defensive side, outpointed the Pirates 14-6 in the frame to grab a 22-17 halftime cushion.
The third period saw Garaway ratchet up the fullcourt pressure. It proved quite effective as Ferry committed seven turnovers, enabling the Pirates to roll back on top, 35-34, entering the final quarter.
Much to to their credit, the Purple Riders exhibited the poise of a champion, executing brilliantly over the final eight minutes. Strama came up especially huge, netting nine points and imposing his will on the Pirates inside.
Back-to-back goals by Schau and Vargo, the latter coming with 2:55 to play, gave Martins Ferry some much-needed breathing room at 45-39. Garaway used a Logan Erb goal to cut it to four.
Ferry proceeded to go to the foul line, only to miss the front end of a one-and-one. Vargo, however, got the rebound, laid it in and drew a foul. His free throw upped the Purple lead to 47-42 with 1:50 showing.
Winston Mullett drained a three for Garaway to make it a 48-45 reading with 1:41 showing. It proved to be the Pirates’ last gasp.
Vargo was fouled on another offensive rebound and converted a free throw. Schau goaled at the 1:11 mark followed by a Strama bucket inside a minute which was the final nail in the Garaway coffin as the advantage mushroomed to 53-45.
“We took Garaway’s best shots in the third quarter and withstood it. We played with a lot of confidence in the fourth quarter,” Sabatino said. “We handled their pressure much better and made them pay.”
Schau and Vargo each had 16 points for the Purple while Strama delivered 15 counters. Vargo also collared 15 rebounds.
Barritt was superb in directing the Ferry offense, dissecting the Pirates’ pressure and also doing yeoman’s work on the boards with eight rebounds.
Garaway placed three players in double figures, topped by Tyler Walter’s 16 tallies. Duane Troyer produced 14 points while Mullet ended with 11.
Ferry committed 14 turnovers on the night, twice as many as Garaway.
While Ferry faces a tough task in the Sweet 16, it does so riding the wave of a five-game winning streak and bolstered by the fact it played a taxing regular-season schedule.
“There are only 16 teams left in Division III and we are happy to be one of them. There are no soft touches left,” Sabatino said. “We will take tomorrow off (Saturday), head to Athens Sunday to practice and put a game plan together.
“We are playing with confidence at both ends of the floor and playing unselfishly,” he continued. “We are looking forward to Wednesday.’
GARAWAY (48) – Mullet 3, 2-2 11; Troyer 5, 3-3 14; Walter 7, 0-0 16; Werker 1, 1-1 3; Honigford 1, 2-3 4. Totals 17, 8-9. MARTINS FERRY (56) – Schau 7, 2-5 16; Strama 6, 3-4 15; Appolloni 0, 2-2 2; Vargo 7, 2-3 16; Barritt 2, 1-2 5; Sears 0, 0-0 0; Burress 1, 0-0 2. Totals 23, 10-16.
Three-point goals: Garaway (6) – Mullet (3), Walter (2), Troyer (1); Martins Ferry – None.