By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
NORWOOD, Mo. – He comes at you with a white headband, a pair of protective glasses and a ton of energy.
And now senior guard Wyatt Ward – and the Hartville Eagles, for that matter – are coming at people the rest of this postseason with the Class 2, District 4 championship trophy.
Ward seized it from a tournament official’s hands after he and 6-foot-11 senior Cody Kelley paced Hartville to a 54-46 district championship victory against the Mansfield Lions on Saturday night in front of a capacity crowd at Norwood High School.
“The tradition here is great,” said Ward, who scored a team-high 17 points, including 11 of 12 free throws – 10 of 11 in the final 1:56. (Hartville finished 19-of-27 shooting at the line.) “We try to come in and compete every day, and it’s amazing that our hard work has paid off.”
But even then, Ward acknowledged that Hartville (22-7) – which plays Thayer in a sectional on Wednesday night at Mountain Grove High School – won thanks in large part to its defense weathering 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks from Mansfield’s 6-9 senior, Dylan Caruso.
Caruso scored 10 points on shots close to the rim, and did just about everything he could to keep Mansfield’s season going another week. In fact, he scored six in the fourth quarter, including connecting on a one-and-one with 2:14 left that pulled Mansfield within 43-40.
But Ward was a near ace at the free-throw line on a night when Hartville sped to an early 13-5 advantage and never trailed, with Mansfield pulling within three points in the final minutes of the second, third and fourth quarters.
“(Caruso) gets double-teamed every time down court. Other people have to step up and make shots. For the most part, other people have this season,” Mansfield coach Terry Writer said. “Tonight, we didn’t have enough.”
Ward and Hartville coach Brett Reed said Kelley’s aggressive defense on Caruso played a vital role.
“It took a lot of pressure off everybody,” Ward said. “We didn’t have to worry about lob passes, and it allowed us to stay together to guard their shooters.”
Said Reed, “I thought our big kid did a good job on him. And we weren’t going to let anybody else beat us.”
Kelley said the difference Saturday, as opposed to a loss several weeks ago to Mansfield, was he tightened his defense on Caruso.
“I was probably more physical and kept him from catching as often as last time,” Kelley said. “We had to do better all around.”
The middle two quarters also largely defined the outcome.
It was in that stretch when Mansfield had 14 of 21 possessions without scoring a point, including nine turnovers, several with Hartville’s guards forcing the turnovers immediately after the Lions crossed half court.
“I thought we didn’t guard well at the beginning of the year,” Reed said. “But every game in this district, they guarded. You do that and you give yourself a chance to win every night.”
Hartville also took advantage of the Lions’ aggressive defense right out of halftime. Mansfield was whistled for 10 fouls by the 5:24 mark of the fourth quarter, ensuring Hartville would be in the bonus at the free-throw line the rest of the way.
Holton Simmons scored 14 points for Hartville, which also saw Evan Matthews (8), Ryce Piper (6), Wyatt Mahan (5), Kelley (2) and Eli Cook (2) contribute.
The district title was Hartville’s sixth in a row.
“We lost so much from last year, but we knew we had support,” Kelley said. “We had to go out and prove it.”
Payton Watterson finished with 10 points, while Jacob Gray (6), Trenton Emerick (5) and Spencer Greene (8) combined for 19 points for Mansfield, which finished the season 21-6.
“Last time, we were aggressive in that game and jumped on them early, and put the pressure on them,” Writer said. “It was the opposite tonight.”