One game doesn’t ruin the season for Martins Ferry

ATHENS – As the seconds ticked away in the closing moments of Wednesday night’s Ohio Division III regional semifinal inside Ohio University’s Convocation Center, players and fans from Lucasville Valley started celebrating their berth in Saturday’s Elite 8 contest against Columbus Bishop Ready.

Martins Ferry, meanwhile, just kept playing … hard. Just like it had all season.

There were no hung heads from anyone wearing a Purple Riders jersey. No quit. No giving up. No laying down.

Even though the scoreboard said otherwise, Martins Ferry was playing like the game was tied.

That was the attitude that got them this far. And that was the way they were going to go out.

”I never questioned our effort,” Purple Riders head coach Jeff Sabatino said following his team’s 69-49 defeat. ”We did fight back.”

Leading the late charge was the team’s lone senior, Robert Vargo. The big redhead scored eight of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, many of those coming when Valley had the game well in hand.

He didn’t want this to be his last game. And he was trying to do everything in his power to make sure it wasn’t.

”I wasn’t going to give up,” an emotional Vargo said in the locker room. ”I wanted to go out strong.”

He did.

Martins Ferry proved that a basketball season is a marathon not a sprint.

Ask any coach and they’ll you they want to see their team catch fire right at or just before tournament time starts. That’s what happened with the Purple Riders … for the second straight season.

”Around Christmas time I thought we started to show some signs that we could be a good team,” Sabatino recalled. ”I’ve been around the game a long time. I usually don’t miss those signs.

”We ended up embracing our roles and that was very important.

”I’m not surprised at all we made it back to regionals. I knew we had the right stuff. You didn’t see it (Wednesday), but if you’d seen the last four games …”

Those last four games were Ferry’s previous tournament games. Outside of the district final victory against Garaway (a 14-point win), the other three – vs. Monroe Central, Buckeye Trail and Union Local – were all decided by five points or fewer.

Simply put, the Purple Riders were executing when it counted.

”I knew we had a chance to get back here,” Vargo said. ”We had a great team that worked hard and I’m glad we were able to get back here.

”It’s a great group. I love them. I couldn’t ask for a better team to be a part of.”

Sabatino said Vargo’s leadership was paramount in helping the Riders get back.

”The secret to our success was we came to practice ready to better every day,” he said. ”Whether that was Robert rubbing off on them or them feeding off each other.

”They are a very practice-oriented, very execution-oriented group. I expect them to be that way next year.”

That’s when guys like James Edwards, Emilio Appolloni, Jake Barritt, Arjay Burress and Lucas Agnew, among others, will be back with two regional appearances already under their belt. Not to mention a hunger to get to the next level.

”Who knows? Next year, we’ll certainly be a team to be reckoned with.

”I’m certainly proud of these guys (Wednesday), though. Like I told them after the game, ‘bad game, but a great season.”’

Thorp can be reached at