In sports, it is hard-pressed to find a matchup that’s better than two basketball blue-bloods fighting for the right to move onto the regional stage.
With their wins over Corning Miller and Trimble, respectively, Adam Betten’s Clay Panthers and Ryan Fenton’s South Webster Jeeps will provide a unique opportunity for any basketball fan residing in Scioto County, as the pair will square off against one another in the Division IV, Athens I District Finals for the right to play the Carroll II District winner in the Division IV Regional Semifinals at the Convo.
For South Webster, the Jeeps will be looking for their first district title since 2013. On the flip side will be looking to break a much longer streak — one that consists of a 48-year drought dating back to the 1969 campaign. Since that time, South Webster has won all six of its district titles since Clay last won theirs.
However, that statistic is about the only thing that separates the two units from each other.
Each unit has consistently placed four starters in double-figures on a game-by-game basis. Each unit has a bullheaded set of guards, a pair of knockdown shooters, and a list of multi-dimensional forwards who can do a bit of everything.
Most importantly, however, both teams have the qualities that are necessary in teams who make it to this point — composure and effort.
“South Webster is very well-coached,” Betten said. “(Ryan) Fenton does a great job with the way that they compete and get after it. They’ve been playing their best basketball towards the end of the season, and that showed with an excellent victory over Portsmouth, as well as in the tournament with their wins over Whiteoak, Peebles, and Trimble. He has them playing extremely well right now.”
“Clay’s definitely a really good team,” Fenton said. “They’ve won 19 games in a row for a reason, and they’ve earned the No. 1 seed for a reason. However, we understand that we have to take care of what we can take care of. We match with them pretty well; we’ve just got to make sure that our kids understand the gameplan, how to attack offensively and how to defend defensively, and go from there.”
As both coaches previously referenced, the pair are also similar in the fact that each unit is playing its best basketball at the right time.
Clay’s only losses came within the first five games of the season in a pair of setbacks to Eastern (58-41) and East (69-67) without Nate Hinze, who missed the first eight games of the year with a broken arm. Since that 3-2 start, however, the Panthers have pulled off 19 straight bouts — including a 45-38 win over the Jeeps on Jan. 28.
Those 19 straight wins — and the team and personal accolades that have come with those victories — have launched Clay basketball right into the forefront of the community’s eyes.
“The community’s kind of rallied around these guys,” Betten said of his team’s efforts. “They’ve enjoyed watching them play. They’re fun to watch, with the way that they share the basketball, get everybody involved, and move up and down the floor, so obviously, everybody’s enjoying the ride right now. It’s going to be sad whenever it ends, but we’re going to keep riding this as long as we possibly can. We just want to go out there and have fun. These guys have put a lot of hard work into it with the amount of times that they’ve been in the summer and before school. It’d be a huge accomplishment for them to bring home a district title to Clay.”
South Webster, however, hasn’t been a slouch.
The Jeeps have won eight of their nine affairs since that 45-38 setback to Clay, including four huge victories over Division III opponents in Northwest, Portsmouth, Valley, and West. The only loss in the stretch was a 58-51 loss to Oak Hill, who has only lost one affair all season long and is still playing.
“Our last 10 games have been excellent,” Fenton said. “We are definitely peaking at the right time. Our kids are understanding our gameplan and our kids are understanding what we have to do defensively. When we buckle down, we’re one of the better defensive teams around. It’s just about maintaining consistency on the defensive end. We’re very happy with where we’re at on the defensive side of the ball because our kids are showing that.”
For South Webster, much of its success has come on the back of its seniors, which include Alek Blevins, Matthew Shonkwiler, and Shane Zimmerman. The trio have consistently been a part of the Jeeps’ rotation over the last four years, and Blevins, along with Zimmerman, have been four-year starters for the unit.
“They’ve just bought right into the program,” Fenton said of his senior trio. “They understood that we had a bit of a rebuilding process to work through, but they stuck right with it. I’m proud of them for buying in, listening, and for accomplishing what they’ve accomplished during their careers.”
In addition to the above trio, Shiloah Blevins has also been a key cog for South Webster. The sophomore forward combined with his older brother for 32 points in the Jeeps’ 57-47 victory over Trimble in Wednesday evening’s Division IV, Athens I District Semifinal matchup. Blevins, along with gritty guard and fellow classmate Jacob Ruth, make up the starting five.
“The Blevins brothers (Alek and Shiloah) have been huge all year for us,” Fenton said. “They’ve really been able to take a lot of pressure off of Shane Zimmerman, and help us attack on the offensive and defensive ends. I really think that Alek is the best defender in Southeast Ohio, and Shiloah has done a good job of progressing. He’s listened to everything that we’ve said and he’s worked on his game. He’s had high points and low points as a sophomore, and sometimes, we’ve had to get on him a little bit in order for him to bring his potential out, but he’s playing the best basketball that he’s played all year, and I’m looking forward to how he will respond to the moment tomorrow.”
Clay, meanwhile, has a vastly experienced group for a school of its size. The Panthers sport an astonishing eight seniors and three juniors on the roster, all of whom bring different qualities to the table.
In addition to the presences of its three 1,000-point scorers in Cole Gilliland, Nate Hinze, and Cameron King, fellow seniors Brody Riffe and Anthony Williams have taken pride in making the hustle plays necessary for Clay to get to this point. Fellow seniors Andrew Hadsell, Taylor Pack and Dylan Wilson all bring additional depth and quickness to the backcourt.
“You can definitely tell how much these guys have grown up and matured since they were underclassmen,” Betten said. “It’s been a joy to coach each of them and it’s been fun to watch them not only as basketball players, but as individuals who are growing into fine young men, as well.”
For Fenton, it’s about staying disciplined and steadfast in the approach that South Webster plans to take into the affair.
“We just can’t settle for jumpshots,” Fenton said. “We’ve got to try to attack and try to get the shots that we are looking for. On the flipside of that, we can’t allow Clay to have several opportunities to score. Defensively, we have to hold them to one shot. They’ve got a lot of good shooters, so we understand that they’re going to hit shots, and tough shots as well. However, our goal is going to be to make it as hard and as tough on them as possible, while making sure that we’re getting the right shots on the offensive end.”
Betten, meanwhile, believes that his upperclassman-heavy rotation will thrive regardless of how the game is played.
“South Webster is going to want to slow the game down and grind it out so that we don’t get as many possessions,” Betten said. “That’s what most teams try to do against us, is slow it down, try to work the ball around the perimeter, and take time off of the clock while making us work defensively. That makes every possession extremely valuable. You don’t want to turn it over or rush shots, which turns the contest into a different type of a game. It’s just one of those things where you just continue to play and grind out games in different ways. Good basketball teams are able to win in different styles and ways, and I believe that these guys will be ready, no matter how the game is played.”
In all, the contest presents a unique challenge that both coaches expect to be answered by a group of guys who have done nothing but exceed expectations throughout.
“The first thing that we wanted our guys to understand is the fact that we’re proud of them,” Fenton said. “This season’s been trying in a lot of ways, and there have been a lot of ups and downs with the things that we’ve had to deal with on and off of the floor. So we’re proud of the kids for sticking together and understanding the goal and tasks at hand. However, once we get here, our goal, as far as the game of basketball is concerned, is a district championship. I’m confident that our kids are going to give every single thing that they have tomorrow.”
“The guys have to understand that this is a game that they’ve prepared for a long time, and just understand the moment,” Betten said. “These chances don’t come along all of the time. You’ve got to relish the moment, stay humble, and not take anything for granted because these chances don’t come along all of the time. They’ve got a lot of people who are going to be behind them, supporting them regardless of the outcome, and they’re very fortunate to be in the spot that they’re in, because most of the teams in the state aren’t playing anymore. They have to go out and accept the challenge.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930