By Pat Dailey (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
SPARTA — Underclassmen shined brightly on both sides Tuesday in the rubber game of this season’s Strafford-Greenwood series. But senior Seth Soden’s star shined brightest.
Soden swished what proved to be a game-winning 3-pointer in the Indians’ 57-56 Class 3 District 11 semifinal triumph against the Blue Jays.
Soden broke a 54-all tie with his trey with 1:20 remaining.
“Senior year at Districts, I’ve worked so hard for this moment,” Soden said. “I know I’m going to hit those shots. I may get nervous during the day and before the game. But once we warm up, I’m locked in.”
“We knew he was going to make that one,” Strafford coach Tyler Ryerson said. “I’ve seen this kid make so many 3s. I had all the faith in the world in him. He has shot the crap out of it lately. The kid’s a gym rat. I’ve got to kick him out of the gym about every day because all he wants to do is shoot.”
Soden had a trio of 3-pointers. He’s made a habit for three years of responding well to the post-season.
“The past two seasons I struggled at the beginning of the year and then I would find my rhythm,” Soden said. “This year, I found my rhythm early and went in a slump in the middle of the season. But recently I have picked it up. I love the end of the season.”
Of course, this post-season he’s going into every game knowing it could be his finale in a Strafford uniform.
“It’s nerve wracking, to be honest,” Soden said. “You don’t want to go out there and be scared to lose. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Strafford (19-8) held onto its late lead, despite missing the front end of three straight one-and-one opportunities at the free-throw line over the final :56. Overall, the Indians were 3-of-10 at the free-throw line.
“This same group last year set a school record for free-throw percentage and Strafford has been around since the 19-teens,” Ryerson said of the Indians’ 79-percent accuracy as a team last season. “But we have really struggled there this season.
“What I’m proud of is we got stops on the defensive end,” he added.
Greenwood (20-8) had two attempts to win on its final possession, but both shots were off-balanced tries and with Indians defenders draped all over the shooters.
The Jays received 23 points from sophomore Tanner Jones and 12 apiece from senior Tommy Pinegar and freshman Collin Clark.
Jones ended the second and third quarters with buckets at the buzzer. He displayed exceptional explosiveness and athleticism, reminiscent of his father, former Duke and NBA swingman Dahntay Jones.
“Pressure doesn’t really affect me,” Jones said of his first taste playing in the post-season. “I came in and did what I love to do. I tried to do what I do best. But it didn’t end the way we wanted.”
Strafford did what few teams have done this season by outshooting Greenwood from 3-point land. The Indians had 10 3-pointers to the Jays’ six.
“They are such a tough matchup,” Ryerson said. “You have to guard them at half-court and then they have a D-I kid (Jones) who can get to the rim. He’s unbelievable and very hard to guard. I thought AK (Rael) and Avery (Voysey) did a good job on him. Our plan was to put AK on Jones and have some length on him. But AK had foul trouble throughout, so we had to make an adjustment on the fly. The thing about this group is all of them guard.
“This group was labeled soft when I got here (three years ago),” Ryerson added. “They have grown up quite a bit.”
“We’ve got that our whole lives, that we’re too soft and too nice of kids,” Soden said. “But we’ve gotten tougher over the years. Coming into this year, we thought we would be a good offensive team, but people thought we’d be down on defense. We have kind of flipped that around. We’re out-rebounding everybody.”
Strafford and Greenwood split their regular-season meetings. One game went to overtime and the average margin of victory in the matchups was 2.7 points.
“I told (Greenwood coach Darren Taylor) we could play 10 times and all 10 of them would be crazy,” Ryerson said.
Freshman Cody Voysey and senior Logan Fraker topped Strafford in scoring with 11 points each.
No. 2 seed Strafford advances to face No. 4 seed Sparta (18-10) in Friday’s final at 7:30 p.m. The Trojans downed No. 1 seed Skyline 57-55 in Tuesday’s other semifinal, as sophomores Walker Loveland and Jacob Lafferty both scored 17 points.
“We have lost five District championships in a row,” Ryerson said. “I don’t think we’re going to overlook anybody.”
GREENWOOD (56) — Jones 7 8-10 23, Clark 4 1-2 12, Pinegar 5 0-0 12, Burri 4 1-3 9.
STRAFFORD (57) — Rael 3 0-1 7, Fraker 5 0-0 11, A. Voysey 3 2-4 9, C. Voysey 4 1-3 11, Hunt 2 0-0 6, Soden 3 0-0 9, Lawler 1 0-2 2, Goings 1 0-0 2.
Greenwood 10 21 17 8 – 56
Strafford 12 10 20 15 – 57
3-point goals – Soden 3, Clark 3, Pinegar 2, C. Voysey 2, Hunt 2, Rael, Fraker, A. Voysey, Jones.