Blue Jays finish season as sectional tourney champs, district runner-up

The Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington Blue Jays pose with their Southwest District Division IV runner-up trophy at University of Dayton Arena on March 9.

Successful season on the hardwood reaches end for Ripley boys – 

By Wade Linville – 

Blue Jay fever struck Ripley once again this winter, as a Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington varsity boys basketball team ventured to University of Dayton Arena to compete for a district title for the first time since 2004. Under the leadership of first-year varsity head coach Rex Woodward, the Jays came off a second place finish in Southern Hills Athletic Conference Division I standings to claim a Southwest District Division IV Sectional Title as the No. 1 seed of the Taylor Sectional Tourney, topping James Gamble Montessori 58-51 on March 3 to become sectional champs. The Jays put together some of their best court performances of the season in sectional tourney play to earn a berth in the district championships, where they would face off against Catholic Central. Ripley fans came out in big numbers to support their Blue Jays in Dayton. But, unfortunately for the Jays and their many fans, it was the Catholic Central Irish pulling away late in what was a close bout the majority of the way to claim a 56-45 win and earn a berth in Ohio’s Division IV Sweet 16. It was a see-saw battle early on, as Ripley sophomore Nigel Royal kicked off scoring for the evening with a three-pointer. It was the start of an excellent night for the sophomore guard, who would go on to lead the Jays in scoring in the contest with 12 points. The Irish would go on to score the next two field goals to take a 4-3 lead, and with a bucket down low by Catholic Central’s Sabien Doolittle, the Jays trailed 6-3. Ripley junior Jaki Royal then scored on a drive to the hoop to slice the Irish advantage to 6-5, and the Jays took a 7-6 lead in the first quarter as Jaki Royal forced a turnover on the defensive end that led to a bucket by Nigel Royal on the fast break. The Irish took an 8-7 lead as Doolittle pulled down an offensive rebound and hit the put-back. Ripley senior Ryan Harney, after some early misses from three-point land, finally connected from long distance late in the first period to put the Jays on top 12-10. Catholic Central’s Trey Dunn drained a two-point field goal to tie the game at 12, but it was Ripley’s senior postman Josiah Staggs sinking a shot at the buzzer to put the Jays on top 14-12 at the end of the first quarter.

Ripley’s Landon Rigdon launches a shot over Catholic Central defenders during the Southwest District Division IV championship game at University of Dayton Arena, March 9.

The Jays’ struggles to knock down shots in the district championship game left them trailing 26-21 at halftime break after being outscored by the Irish 14-7 in the second quarter. The Irish were able to stretch their lead to 10 points, 31-21, in the third quarter, but it was Ripley’s junior guard Landon Rigdon providing the Jays with a third-quarter spark to trim the lead to seven points by draining a three-pointer coming off a Ripley time out. The Jays struggled to put a stop to Doolittle, who provided the Irish with consistent scoring throughout the contest. It was a three-pointer by Doolittle that lifted the Irish to a 34-24 lead after sinking a shot from beyond the arc earlier in the frame. The three-point shower continued in the third period, as Catholic Central’s Trey Dunn dialed long distance and connected to leave the Jays trailing 37-24. A three-pointer by Rigdon ended scoring in the third quarter, and entering the fourth quarter of play it was the Jays trailing 37-29. The Jays cut the Irish lead to just six with 7:19 to go in the fourth quarter, as Ripley sophomore Peyton Fyffe was fouled on a shot and ventured to the charity stripe to sink both attempts. It was a steal by Nigel Royal that the Jays would eventually capitalize on with a three-pointer by Fyffe to slice the Irish lead to 37-34 with 7:13 to go in the fourth. Following a bucket by Doolittle, it was an assist by Fyffe that led to a bucket by Ripley junior Landon Dearing to cut the Irish lead to 39-36. While the Irish relied heavily on their play in the paint on the offensive end in the fourth quarter, the Jays were getting the majority of their offensive production from just two players who were able to find some success on drives through the lane – brothers Jaki and Nigel Royal. Following an offensive rebound and put-back by Catholic Central’s Trey Brown to give the Irish a 48-38 lead, it was Jaki Royal scoring on a drive to the hoop to narrow the margin to eight points late in the fourth quarter. The Jays, trailing by eight with under two minutes to go in the fourth, commenced to fouling to stop the clock, but the Irish were able to sink some key free throws down the stretch. It was Nigel Royal scoring on a quick drive to the hoop to cut the Irish lead to 51-42, but with only 1:20 left on the clock the chances of a district title were quickly dwindling for the Jays. But the Jays never gave up, battling until the final seconds ran off the clock. A three-pointer by Nigel Royal with just over 44 seconds to go left the Jays trailing by only six points, 51-45. The Irish went to the charity stripe three times in the final 40 seconds of play, connecting on five-of-six attempts to seal the 11 point victory. Nigel Royal, with his 12 points, was the only Ripley player to reach double figures in scoring in the March 9 district championship game. Fyffe finished with eight points, and Staggs contributed on the offensive end with seven points. Jaki Royal and Rigdon finished with six points each, while Harney ended the contest with four points. Rounding out Ripley’s scoring was Ripley junior Landon Dearing with two points. The Jays shot only 29 percent from the field in the contest, while the Irish shot 51 percent with perfect three-for-three shooting from beyond the arc as a team. Leading all scorers in the contest was Doolittle with 21 points. The Jays would force 14 turnovers in the district tourney game to help them remain within striking distance for the majority of the game. “Clearly we didn’t play our best and we know that. That doesn’t take away from the type of season that we had. We win our 11th sectional in school history and there’s a lot of teams that would love to be in the position that we were in,” Woodward said in a post game interview with Champion Media reporters. “I thought the guys did a pretty good job of fighting and just one too many things didn’t go our way,” he added. The Jays finished their season with an overall record of 17-9 and can hold their heads high for their accomplishments this season. The Jays bid farewell to an excellent crew of seniors who will be missed next season – Harney, Staggs, Brian Dunn, Dalton England, Chris Reuss, and Logan Hanson. “Our seniors have been huge all year. They showed up every single day working hard. They gave us everything throughout their four years here,” Woodward said. “We wouldn’t even be in position without them. These kids were a good group to be around, don’t get in trouble and are positive all the time, it definitely speaks to what they’ve done throughout their four years.” But the future still looks bright for the RULH varsity boys basketball program as Woodward returns a skilled crew with a great deal of varsity experience for the 2018-19 school year. “We told the younger guys they have to continue to grind and the offseason has got to mean a lot more to them if you want to win and be on the other end of this next year,” Woodward said.