By Calen VanNess (For OzarksSportsZone.com0
After beating opponents by an average of 31.7 points per game in conference play, it is safe to say that in the Summit there is Hartville and then there is everybody else.
The only thing that stood in the way of an undefeated conference schedule was the Gainesville Bulldogs (15-10, 2-4), but they proved no match for the mighty Eagles as Hartville (24-2, 6-0) rolled to an easy 86-56 victory on Tuesday night.
As Hartville has done to so many opponents this season, they relied on their aggressive defense and explosive offense and built an early lead by forcing nine Gainesville turnovers in the first quarter. They then proceeded to score 49 first-half points.
“I thought we came out and played really well in the first half,” said Hartville head coach Brett Reed. “We guarded well.”
Gainesville did not stop fighting, however, as the Bulldogs put together an 8-0 run in the third quarter. Although Hartville still led by 24, Reed called a timeout and took the opportunity to remind his team to play until the end.
“We got a little complacent defensively in the second half, but we have to give Gainesville some credit because they made shots,” said Reed. “I felt like at times we were going through the motions and thought the game was over. [I told them] we have to stay focused throughout and play all four quarters.”
Gainesville hopes this is not the last time they see the Eagles as both teams are in the same district. The Eagles will be the first seed, and the Bulldogs will be the second seed. This sets up a scenario for a rematch with the district championship on the line.
What must scare all district foes, however, is that Hartville may be peaking at the right time as they have averaged 88 points in their last four games.
This was also a special night for guard Holton Simmons, the lone senior who was playing in his last home game for the Eagles. It was not always an easy road, but he is proud of the journey.
“God has been so good to me,” Simmons said about his time playing for Hartville. “My two older brothers have pushed me. I have great parents who raised me in church all of my life. I put my trust in God. He has given me four great years. I had a knee injury [earlier in my career] and was really devastated. The Lord helped me through it, and I came back strong.”
Although Simmons, who poured in 16 points against the Bulldogs, has enjoyed playing in front of large crowds at Hartville, he knows there is more work to do and is not ready for his high school career to be over quite yet.
“We have seven games left to put us at a state title, and that is what we are looking for,” said Simmons. “We are excited. We are hungry and we are ready to go eat.”
Another special moment occurred in the third quarter as junior guard Ryce Piper scored his 1,000th point for the Eagles.
“Honestly, I had no idea,” said Piper when asked if he knew going into the game he was so close to reaching the milestone. “Earlier in the season, I knew I was a couple hundred off, but I didn’t know I was that close. I was kind of confused when everybody started cheering. It means a lot. It was exciting.”
Piper knew he could not have accomplished this goal without those around him.
“I definitely thank all my teammates and coaches,” said Piper. “They have definitely helped me and mentored me to get that thousand.”
Piper led all scorers with 24 points.
Although it feels good to win another conference championship, none of that matters when district play kicks off next Monday night. Hartville head coach Brett Reed knows his players must stay focused and hungry for more if they are to reach their ultimate goal: a Class 2 state championship.
“It’s totally a new season,” said Reed. “Every possession counts. That’s what we are going to go try to do is win every possession. Hopefully, we get to play all seven games and be standing at the end.”
Senior forward Jaxon Britt scored 16 points for Gainesville, and sophomore guard Jake Leeker ended the contest with 15.
Hartville will play in Cabool against Mansfield on Monday afternoon at 4 pm in the opening round of Class 2 District 10 play, while Gainesville will play Bakersfield at 7 pm.
Hartville 20 29 23 14—86
Gainesville 12 7 24 13—56
Hartville – Ryce Piper 24, Holton Simmons 16, Brady Ward 13, Braden Branstetter 12, Cody Mahan 12, Dalton O’Dell 3, Eli Cook 2, Bryce Coday 2, Jacob Ballard 2
Gainesville – Jaxon Britt 16, Jake Leeker 15, Bryce Hambelton 7, Jalen Evans 6, Landry Jenkins 6, Austin Petter 6