By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Many obstacles were in place to trip up Springfield Catholic on Saturday night.
The team’s leading scorer exited the game early with an injury and didn’t return. Another starter fell face-first during game action and spilled blood onto the JQH Arena court.
In the fourth quarter, trying to withstand an Ozark comeback, Catholic botched two wide-open dunk attempts, only to get the rebound and score anyway.
It was that kind of feel-good, bounces-go-your-way night for the Irish, who repeated as Blue and Gold champions with a 74-64 win over Ozark at JQH Arena.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Catholic senior Charlie O’Reilly. “Not a lot of teams have the chance to go back-to-back. We were blessed this year to have that opportunity.”
O’Reilly scored a game-high 24 to give the Irish the Gold Division title. Before last season, Catholic (15-0 overall) hadn’t won a Blue and Gold title since 1959.
After Saturday night’s result, they’re one of the few programs in the area who can say they’ve gone back-to-back at the Blue and Gold.
“It’s remarkable,” said Springfield Catholic coach Dustin Larsen. “I grew up playing in this thing and now, it’s an honor to coach in it and be a part of it with these guys. To do it for a second time, it’s pretty special. I’m very thankful.”
After Catholic’s leading scorer, Jake Branham, left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, Catholic had multiple players step up. Ben Galligos, Zach Howell, Michael Manzardo, Wallace Squibb and Tyson Riley each scored six or more to keep the Irish rolling.
“The strength of this group is all the guys we have on it. The depth,” Larsen said. “That’s what’s special. They understand it’s not one or two guys, it’s a whole group. And they’re all pulling for each other.”
Ozark trailed by 12 entering the fourth quarter. The Tigers cut that margin in half with four minutes remaining but Catholic, despite two missed dunk attempts in the final minutes, never relinquished the lead.
Howell swooped in for a putback on Michael Manzardo’s errant dunk attempt.
Tyson Riley was the culprit on the second missed dunk, but he got his own rebound and scored anyway. He then flashed his trademark smile.
“At that moment – I’m smiling now – I wasn’t smiling then,” O’Reilly said. “I was like, ‘Ugh.’ But he got the rebound and scored, so it all worked out.”
Said Larsen about Riley’s reaction: ““That’s what (Tyson’s) deal is. That smile brings a smile to everybody. It’s contagious.”
AJ Elliott scored 19 to lead Ozark. The Tigers (8-4 overall) return to action January 8 at Branson.
O’Reilly scored 24 points for Catholic on 7-for-10 shooting.
“My teammates were getting me open shots,” O’Reilly said. “We were doing a lot of driving and kicking out and I think that really helped me to get open, as well as other guys on the team.”
Larsen said that Branham likely hyperextended his right knee and could return to game action in a few weeks.
Catholic doesn’t play again until January 8 at Reeds Spring. The Irish will also compete in the Tournament of Champions at JQH Arena in mid-January.
Catholic 74, Ozark 64
Ozark 13 12 16 23 — 64
Catholic 15 18 22 19 — 74
Ozark – AJ Elliott 19, Kristian Cooper 12, Kyle Flavin 10, Alonzo Riwa 8, Parker Ramsdell 7, Caleb Holzer 6, Troy Davidson 2
Catholic – Charlie O’Reilly 24, Ben Galligos 12, Zach Howell 9, Michael Manzardo 9, Wallace Squibb 8, Tyson Riley 6, Will Morrison 4, Jake Branham 2