MARTINS FERRY - Jeff Sabatino knows the way to Athens quite well.
And that has nothing to do with the fact that he drove back-and-forth on both Saturday and Sunday to scout future opponents.
The veteran and highly successful Purple Riders coach has become quite familiar with the Ohio University Convocation Center during the course of his career, and he and the Purple Riders will get another close-up look at the home of the Bobcats tonight.
PHOTO BY SETH STASKEY
Robert Vargo will try to lead Martins Ferry to Ohio's Elite Eight.
For the fourth time under Sabatino's watch, Martins Ferry is a member of the coveted Ohio Sweet 16 and will take on Southeast District Champion Lucasville Valley in the opening game of a twinbill, with tipoff slated for 6:15 p.m.
"It's very exciting for the kids and the entire school," Sabatino said. "We were nervous, young and probably a little bit scared last year against a team (Ironton) that was probably the best team in Ohio even though it didn't play out that way. I don't think we'll be intimidated this year, and I think we'll be much more mentally tough."
This is the Riders' second consecutive season in the regional semifinal. They were beaten decisively last season by Ironton, which went on to the Division III state tournament.
Lucasville Valley, meanwhile, hasn't been this deep in the tournament since 1987, ironically when it beat Mingo to reach the Elite 8.
"(Getting to this point) has been our expectation all season," Valley coach Scott Rolfe said. "We have eight seniors and brought back all but one starter from a district final team."
While Sabatino had the ability to scout Lucasville Valley's district semifinal and final because they were pushed back to Saturday and Sunday, the Purple Riders won't have the ability to get onto the Convo floor until a brief shootaround today.
"Everything's backed up because of the weather," Sabatino said. "I fought to get one hour of a shootaround, so I am banking on the fact that I got to see them twice and got a handle on what they're going to do."
The Indians come into the game with a 21-2 record. Their only losses came to quality Division II outfits Warren and Athens.
"You'd have to think they'd be a little bit fatigued after playing back-to-back days," Sabatino said. "That part is an advantage for us, I guess."
The Indians had to snatch two victories from the jaws of defeat to get to this point with their senior-laden roster. Lucasville Valley edged Coal Grove Dawson Bryant, 66-65, and Portsmouth, 58-56, to get to this point.
"Prior to playing back-to-back games, we had a 15-day layoff, so I don't think that did anyone any favors," Rolfe said. "We were fortunate (against Dawson-Bryant) and we expected a battle (from Portsmouth). I got the feeling in that game that who had the ball last would have the best chance to win."
Such was the case for the Indians. Senior Chris Flowers drilled a 3-pointer that lifed Lucasville Valley past Portsmouth just before the horn sounded.
Rolfe has been scrambling to find additional information in a short amount of time about the Purple Riders.
"That's a big advantage for them that (Coach Sabatino) got to sit down here for two days and watch everyone play," Rolfe said. "Playing a team that far away, it's tough to get film or anything. We have to get the best scouting report put together that we can and stay focused on the fundamentals."
Martins Ferry has learned a thing or two about nip-and-tuck victories along the tournament trail. The Riders (15-9) needed overtime to outlast Monroe Central, had to fend off Buckeye Trail and then outlasted Union Local before dispatching Garaway, 57-43, last Friday in the district final.
"I think that's good for a team when you're winning games like that," Sabatino said. "For instance, I think we derive more from the first three games than we do the Garaway game. When you have to face the possibility of elimination for two or three possessions and still stand up and do what you need to do, that really provides growth."
The Indians are a balanced team offensively. Senior Hayden Dunn (6-foot-4) is the leading scorer at 14.8 points and also grabs 8.7 rebounds a night. He was named Southeast District Player of the Year.
Jordan West (6-6) is the Indians' second-leading scorer at 13 points a night. Bryan Rolfe, who is the son of the coach, along with Flowers, each go for 11.5 points.
Lucasville Valley likes to get the ball up and down the floor quickly, meaning a contrast of styles could ensue.
"We have to limit their best players, but the other guys are capable of making shots," Sabatino said.
Rolfe can't think of too many games where his team has gone into it with a size disadvantage, but he gives the Riders the edge.
"Martins Ferry's size is the big thing," Rolfe said. "We hope to get the tempo pushed up a little bit and get their bigs moving up and down the court."
The Riders are fueled by senior standout Robert Vargo. The 6-6 double-double machine has been scoring at a 20 points per-game clip and grabbing better than 12 rebounds a night.
Junior point guard Jake Barritt makes the engine go as the facilitator. He's not asked to score much, but runs the show on both ends.
Sophomore big man Emilio Appolloni has continued to evolve on both ends as the season's gone on. He had an impressive district tournament and is a good rebounder and shot blocker.
Sophomore James Edwards is developing into a go-to-option on the offensive end to complement Vargo. He hit five 3s in the district final and averaged better than 17 points a game in the last two games.
Sophomore Arjay Burress rounds out the starting lineup. He's a solid defender and strong athlete who can finish around the basket.
Coming off the Riders' bench are Lucas Agnew and Kahlil Bass.