By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
MANSFIELD — For as long as Brett Reed has coached basketball, the Hartville coach has instructed his boys to focus on the two things that are always going to be within their control.
Defense and rebounds — and this year’s Eagles do both better than just about anyone.
“We can’t necessarily control if shots fall for us, but we can control those things,” Reed said. “This team has really bought into it. I feel like they’re one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever coached and very possibly one of the best defensive teams in the state.”
In a season that has been filled with dominant defensive performances, the Eagles delivered an absolute masterpiece in the Class 3 District 10 championship game on Friday. Hartville held Strafford to just five points in the first twelve minutes of the second half while its own offense came alive, turning a four-point halftime lead into a 55-32 victory at Mansfield High School.
It is the ninth straight district title for the Eagles, who improved to 27-0 and currently sit atop the Class 3 rankings heading into the first round of the state tournament. They will play District 9 champion Steelville (20-6) on Tuesday at a site and time to be determined as they continue their quest for a second straight state championship and first since moving up from Class 2.
“If we continue to guard like that, we’re going to have a chance in every game,” Reed said shortly after the final horn sounded Friday. “If we continue to guard like that, shots fall and we play well offensively, then we’d be clicking at the right time and we’d be a really tough out.”
Only six teams have scored more than 45 points in a game against Hartville, which is holding opponents to just 39.6 points.
Strafford appeared poised to eclipse both totals, as Vance Mullins scored nine points in the first quarter and the Indians led 16-12 in the second as Hartville struggled to find a rhythm. But the Eagles stormed back with an 11-1 run to retake the lead and entered the break leading 24-20.
“We really just needed to have a little bit more grit on the defensive side,” Hartville senior Ryce Piper said. “We just had to stop the ball, stop the drive and we did that.”
And then some.
Hartville held Strafford to just two points in the third quarter and three in the first four minutes of the fourth, largely limiting the Indians to contested, low-percentage perimeter shots. The defensive success energized the offense, which outscored Strafford 23-5 over the stretch.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Reed said. “When things are clicking and you’re getting stops defensively, it seems like it’s easier to score. Once we started getting those stops and we got a few run-outs for some layups, we started feeling better about the way we were (shooting.)”
The Eagles held Mullins scoreless over the final quarters and he still finished as Strafford’s top scorer despite fouling out with 3:47 left. Piper led Hartville with 19 points, all in the final three quarters, while fellow seniors Brady Ward (15) and Eli Cook (10) also scored in double-figures.
But Hartville, which has now won 38 straight games dating back to February 2020, was more pleased with its defensive effort. If they are to extend that run, it will be with efforts like Friday.
“At the end of the season like this, defense wins ball games,” Piper said. “Like Coach Reed says all the time, if you’re not getting it done on the offensive floor, you can always control the defensive side. That’s what we did in the second half.”
For a moment, however brief, the Eagles put their hopes of a bigger title on pause to celebrate the one they earned Friday.
The team took the championship plaque over to the student section, where players shared high-fives and posed for a photo with the community that has backed them through nearly a decade of success. All of the players were in elementary school the last time the team did not win a district title.
“We’ve had several years of really, really great kids that work so hard throughout the offseason — really year-round — to get to this point,” Reed said. “You look back and it started nine years ago when one of those teams won the first district title. These kids have just carried on that tradition. You have to be good, you have to do things the right way and you have to catch some breaks. We’ve just been fortunate and blessed over the years to have done that.”
Only time will tell what they will do next.
“We just have to lock down and stay locked in for the rest of the playoffs,” Piper said.