NEW BOSTON — Kyle Sexton said simply it was “insane”.
Tanner Voiers described it as a “dream come true”.
Grady Jackson called it “surreal”.
And Adam Cox, New Boston’s fourth-year head boys basketball coach, called it “one wild ride”.
In their own words, and truth be told, this weekend is what the Tigers signed up for — taking the statewide stage as part of the OHSAA’s Division IV state tournament.
But in talking to the Tigers this week, on Tuesday to be exact, New Boston’s boys aren’t just content to play in their first state semifinal since clear back in 1960 — they are dialing up in Dayton to capture the small-school state championship.
After all, you play to win the game, and the Tigers — once again — try to do just that, as New Boston battles fellow 24-2 and regional champion Columbus Grove in Friday’s Division IV state semifinal.
Tipoff inside the sparkling University of Dayton Arena is set for 2 p.m. — with the winner advancing to Sunday’s state championship tilt, which is set for 10:45.
Friday’s first state semifinal, between 25-3 Botkins and 17-4 Richmond Heights, is set for an 11 a.m. tip.
New Boston, by virtue of its Region 15 championship win over Hiland, broke a 0-for-9 drought in which Scioto County clubs —both boys and girls — had lost in a basketball regional final.
The most recent county teams to reach the state tournament were the Portsmouth Trojans boys — back-to-back berths in fact in 2011 and 2012.
The 2012 Trojans are also the most recent Southeast District squad to win a state semifinal —a 74-66 winner over Ottawa-Glandorf in the Division III Final Four.
Since then, Ironton (Division III) and Warren (Division II) in 2013, Lynchburg-Clay (Division III) in 2016, Fairland (Division III) in 2017 and Sheridan (Division II) in 2019 have all lost in boys state semifinal appearances.
The last Southeast District team to win the Division IV title was Oak Hill in 2009, and before that was the last boys basketball state champion representing Scioto County —South Webster in Division IV in 2006.
The Jeeps, in fact, defeated Columbus Grove 83-65.
Fast forward 15 years, and another county club is battling the Bulldogs in the state tournament.
Columbus Grove, which won its regional title bout against New Bremen 50-48, is also returning to the Final Four for the first time since that loss a decade-and-a-half ago against South Webster.
Both the Tigers and Bulldogs appeared in the top-10 in all seven of the Associated Press Division IV statewide polls — as the Tigers were the top team for three consecutive weeks, with New Boston finishing sixth and Columbus Grove fourth.
But, of course, the games aren’t played on paper or along Internet message boards —but on the court.
Cox, in an in-depth interview with The Portsmouth Daily Times, said his Tigers are not traveling to Dayton just to be overwhelmed — or only enjoy being there.
Their intention is to return to the village of New Boston by Sunday night — with the state championship trophy.
“You will see some teams over there this week in all four divisions which are ‘satisfied’, and their season is ‘complete’ by making it to the Final Four. They are somewhat overwhelmed or even not prepared. It’s certainly something special to make it to the Final Four and reach this point and get this opportunity, but we’re going up there this weekend to win. Not just be there,” said Cox. “If we make shots, take care of the ball and get those defensive stops, we will give ourselves a chance. These kids have answered the call to every doubt people have had about us in this tournament. We’ve been preparing one game at a time, preparing a defensive strategy, putting ourselves in the best position to win each game, and just going with it. You only have to be better than the other team on one day for 32 minutes and by one point. I’m really stoked about how our kids have responded. These four seniors especially. It’s their last rodeo, and when you have a good group of seniors in the tournament, they are going to leave it all on the floor. These kids have.”
What these Tigers have done in the postseason tournament is get defensive — after steamrolling their Southern Ohio Conference Division I competition for a second consecutive league championship, and a 29-game league win streak.
While New Boston could score 70, 80 or even 90-plus points among the SOC I slate, scoring has been harder to come by in the postseason —as evidenced by its 50-48 and 44-39 triumphs in the regional round.
The Tigers have not allowed any more than 51 points in any of their five tournament bouts — as Symmes Valley and Valley scored 51 apiece, sandwiched around a 44-point effort from South Webster.
New Boston has been best by mixing up its defenses among its seven or even eight-man maximum rotation — whether it’s half-court or full-court, trapping or pressing, or even a 1-3-1 zone.
During Monday’s media teleconference among the qualifying head coaches, Columbus Grove coach Chris Sautter said that his Bulldogs haven’t played a team that mixes and matches as many defenses as the Tigers have done.
Cox expects the extra emphasis on defensive game-planning to continue for Friday.
“Our whole team has sacrificed scoring 75 or more points per game just to win. We usually want to score 75 or 80 points per game and shoot the ball in eight seconds. But now once the competition is stiffer, the game-planning is better, the courts are wider and bigger, the possessions and their value are even more critical, these kids are showing that we can win with scoring 40 or 50 points,” said the coach. “We’re trying to keep our kids focused on playing our game, but at the same time, having that defensive strategy to stop them. We’ve really been focused on the defensive end all tournament.”
The Bulldogs, as Cox explained, are similar to the Tigers —in terms of a scorer and rebounder like Sexton, a shooting guard like Voiers, and a point guard like Jackson.
Blake Reynolds, a six-foot four-inch senior, is similar to the 6-5 Sexton’s 21.4 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists per game —as he leads the Bulldogs at 15.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
“Blake Reynolds is their ‘quarterback’, and funny enough he was their four-year starting quarterback for their football team too. He is their leader and a gamer, and is a very important part of what they like to do,” said Cox.
Tayt Birnesser — a 6-3 senior — is close behind Reynolds, averaging 15.1 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Birnesser is regarded as the Bulldogs’ “taller version” of the 6-1 Voiers, and “a dead-eye shooter”.
Gabe Clement, a six-foot senior, is the Bulldogs’ point guard —similar to Jackson and even De’Von Jones both defensively and offensively.
Others averaging over five points per game are Trey Sautter (6-1 junior) at 8.8, Bo Birnesser (6-2 freshman) at 5.6, and Ethan Halker (6-1 senior) at 5.0.
“These kids remind you of us, not only because they have height and a very good basketball IQ, but like my group, they have played together for so long,” said Cox. “They know where everybody is at, they pass the ball well, they are a good replica of us. It’s going to be a game of both teams being pretty good and being evenly-matched. I think it’s going to be a game that is going to be won in the fourth quarter or at the free-throw line, and by the team that takes care of the ball and rebounds better.”
Jackson concurred, but also spoke of New Boston’s key to defense.
“They’re a great team. They shoot the ball well and they’re very smart. They have three really good, all-around players that we’ll need to stop. They’re a lot like us, maybe a little slower and I think we play better defense,” he said. “If we just pick up on defense and be in attack mode all game, I think we’ll be in the state final.”
For the Tigers, Sexton is the two-time Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association Southeast District Division IV Player of the Year —as Voiers (19.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg) joined Sexton on that first-team all-district unit for the second straight season.
Sexton — who has verbally committed to playing collegiately at Ohio Valley University in Parkersburg, W. Va. — set the Tigers’ new career scoring record at 1,707 points in their regional championship win.
Jones (14.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) joined the all-district list this season as a second-teamer, while 6-6 senior Chase Clark (10.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg) was a third-team all-district choice.
Jackson and Brady Voiers are the two juniors which will play regularly, as the next two off the bench are junior Sethe Perry and sophomore Luke Henson.
Cox said his short bench is indeed a key concern, and especially competing in an arena with a wider and 94-foot floor with different shooting backgrounds.
The Tigers, in preparation for Friday’s atmosphere, were set to practice at Shawnee State University on Wednesday —with Wright State being the Tigers’ practice and walk-thru venue for Thursday night.
The Tigers are also familiar with playing at Ohio University’s Convocation Center — another 13,000-or-more seat college arena.
“I’m hoping three years at The Convo kind of helps that. At Wright State, we’ll just do some shooting and get the feel for the atmosphere and how the backdrops are,” said Cox. “Hopefully, these practices prepare us well. We want to get some shots up and do some walk-thrus and see just how much spaced out things will be on the offensive and defensive ends.”
And, of course, the Tigers —for as wild and exciting as their thrill ride has been —don’t want to see it stop now with just Friday’s matinee in Dayton.
“We want to send these seniors out with a chance to win a championship. Our message all week this week is to finish the mission and don’t settle. Don’t get caught in the limelight that we’re just here (at state tournament),” said Cox. “Let’s go up there to win this sucker.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved