By Calen VanNess (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For Hartville Eagles fans, winning never gets old. Luckily for these diehard fans, their team seems to oblige more often than not, and Wednesday night was no different.
In front of a sea of blue, the Eagles (23-7) found themselves in familiar territory as they defeated the Thayer Bobcats 37-25 and now move to within one win of going back to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
The game was a scrappy, hard-fought defensive battle that saw the Eagles score only three field goals in the second half, but it was their performance from the charity stripe that allowed them to protect their lead as they went a perfect 12-for-12 from the free-throw line in the second half.
Senior guard Wyatt Ward, who led all players with 17 points, was proud of his team’s performance.
“I think we played excellent on both offense and defense,” said Ward. “We got stops, hit our free throws, and got the big stops that we really needed.”
The Eagles jumped out to an early 10-7 lead after one quarter thanks in part to two deep three pointers by Ward.
Thayer was not willing to give up easily, however, even as they saw their deficit grow to 18-9 by halftime.
As Hartville increased its lead to 25-12 in the third quarter, Thayer senior guard Jalen Andrews tried to give his team a spark after hitting a buzzer beater to end the third quarter and pull within 27-18, but it was the clutch free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter by Ward that kept Thayer from gaining any further momentum in the game.
“We practice free throws every day,” said Ward. “We run for free throws, and we came up big with free throws tonight.”
Hartville head coach Brett Reed knew the importance of this game and praised his team for being ready to play.
“It’s a great win for our program and for these kids,” said Reed. “These kids battled their tails off tonight against a Thayer squad that’s really good. [Thayer is] well coached and can flat guard you. I thought our kids rose to the challenge, and they impressed me.”
Senior forward Evan Mathews, who had 11 points against the Bobcats, agreed with his coach.
“We guarded extremely well,” said Mathews. “Thayer’s a great team. We just executed really well on offense.”
Mathews also reflected on the trust and dedication this team shares that allows them to keep moving toward their ultimate goal of another Class 2 championship.
“I really want to have my teammates’ backs, and I know they expect the same from me,” said Mathews. “We have a lot of heart here, and I just want to go out and play as hard as I can each and every day.”
After playing in this round each of the past six years, Reed knows that to have longevity as a successful program it takes not only exceptional players, but also the backing of an entire community.
“They are great kids and have great parents and come from a great community,” said Reed. “Our fans come out and support us every time we play whether at home or on the road. All of Hartville is here, and these kids take pride in their program, in themselves, and in their team.”
The Bobcats (25-5) were led by junior forward Ayden Stone’s 10 points.
So, does Ward think the Eagles are ready to play Hayti for a return back to the Final Four?
“Oh, yeah,” answered Ward. “Oh, yeah.”
Hartville will face Hayti on March 3rd at 2:45 pm at Three Rivers Community College.
Hartville 10 8 9 10—37
Thayer 7 2 9 8—25
Hartville – Wyatt Ward 17, Evan Mathews 11, Cody Kelley 4, Ryce Piper 3, Wyatt Mahan 2
Thayer – Ayden Stone 10, Dylan Spencer 6, Kobe Meyer 5, Braden Hufstedler 2, Jalen Andrews 2