By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
One of the few things Hartville hasn’t achieved under head coach Brett Reed?
A successful run in the annual Blue and Gold Tournament.
After Saturday night, you can check that off the list, too.
The Eagles will play for their first Blue and Gold title in 23 years after a convincing 52-41 win over Willard at JQH Arena. Junior Ryce Piper scored a game-high 22 for the Eagles, who capitalized on Willard star Daniel Abreu being in foul trouble for most of the game.
Hartville (11-0 overall) will play Logan-Rogersville at 7 p.m. Monday at JQH Arena in the Blue Division title game. Hartville won its only Blue and Gold title in 1996.
“We give the glory to God and put Him first in our game,” said Hartville senior Holton Simmons. “We go in every day, work hard and prepare one game at a time and take it one possession at a time.
“We’re excited to have the chance to bring a (Blue and Gold) championship back to Hartville.”
Many relatives of current players – including Eli Cook’s dad – played on the Hartville team that won a Blue and Gold title in 1996.
“To be a small school and get to advance to the championship game of the Blue and Gold, we’re ecstatic,” Reed said.
It’s the farthest the Eagles have ever advanced in the Blue and Gold under Reed, who’s in his ninth season as Hartville’s head coach.
Hartville has finished fourth on two occasions in his tenure. Also, in the 2015-16 season, Hartville lost in the quarterfinals as a No. 2 seed. The Eagles went on to win a state championship that season.
The Eagles, who have won seven straight district titles and finished with 20+ wins in each of those seasons, have proven their worth in this year’s Blue and Gold.
As a No. 4 seed, the Class 2 Eagles have double-digit wins over a Class 4 school (Marshfield) and now a pair of Class 5 schools (Branson, Willard).
“It’s always great being the underdogs,” Simmons said. “You have nothing to lose. Go give it your all and show people what you got.”
Hartville seized control when Abreu was out of the game. He picked up his third foul midway through the second quarter and sat the rest of the half; a three-point Willard lead became a four-point deficit by halftime.
Abreu also sat the final 4:35 of the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul. Willard trailed by eight at the time.
With Abreu back in the game in the fourth, Hartville burned clock and pushed its lead up to 16. A pair of Hayden Roberts 3-pointers sparked a late Willard rally.
The undefeated Eagles (11-0 overall) have won every game thus far by double digits.
“I think of all the teams I’ve coached, this is the best, most well-rounded team I’ve ever had,” Reed said. “Anybody can lead us in scoring any given night. We play really well together and guard really well together.”
When Abreu was in the game, Hartville devoted extra attention to the 6’6” forward. The Eagles brought double- and triple-teams on Abreu or packed extra defenders in the lane, daring other Willard players to beat them from the outside.
Abreu still finished with 19 points.
“We thought if somebody else (on Willard) shot it, it could possibly go in. But at least Abreu’s not shooting it because when he shoots it, we feel like it is going to go in,” Reed said. “That was our game plan.
“Him getting in foul trouble definitely helped us. It’s impossible to contain him for four quarters.”
Willard (8-3 overall) faces Logan-Rogersville at 4 p.m. Monday in the Blue Division 3rd place game.
Hartville 52, Willard 41
Hartville 10 14 13 15 — 52
Willard 15 5 7 14 — 41
Hartville – Ryce Piper 22, Brady Ward 11, Eli Cook 6, Braden Branstetter 6, Holton Simmons 4, Cody Mahan 3
Willard – Daniel Abreu 19, Hayden Roberts 9, Mo Grayer 8, Haden Brown 3, Gavin Davis 2