Devils earn first hoop crossover in 18 years

By John Bernhardt
One play sequence in Friday night’s Championship game symbolized the Margaretville Blue Devil’s ascent to the top of the Delaware League.

Blue Devils sophomore Matt VanValkenburg took the ball out of bounds facing South Kortrights 2-2-1 full court press. VanValkenburg’s inbound pass started a passing series where the ball touched the hands of all five Blue Devil’s without once touching the floor and ended when senior Ryan Sanford bounded a shot off the glass for a lay-up. It was a highlight reel play sequence that said a lot about why the Blue Devils are the Delaware League’s new basketball champions with a 47-41 victory.

Drought is over
After an eighteen-year drought, a time span that stretches beyond the ages of almost every player on the Blue Devil roster, Delaware League champions they are. With a large crowd looking on at Maines Arena on the SUNY Delhi campus, a late game Blue Devil surge lifted Margaretville past South Kortright, 48-41, giving Margaretville their first crossover basketball title since the Blue Devils bested the Rams back in 1995.

Sophomore guard Cooper Reither played a steely resolve and a calming shooting touch leading all scorers with 15 points. Reither helped settle any Blue Devil opening game nerves knocking down three, 3-point bombs in the first five minutes of the game. Later, after a nine point South Kortright run had erased a Blue Devil lead of the same margin to close the third quarter, it was Reither again who would settle the Blue Devils. The sophomore guard’s final goal from behind the arc would come one-minute into the fourth quarter putting Margaretville back in front, 38-35, and setting the stage for a dramatic Blue Devil finish.

Defense is key
  Down the stretch, it was defense that made the difference for Margaretville. After SK’s “go-to-guy” senior Trevor Holdridge buried a jumper at the elbow of the foul line 30 seconds after Reither’s final trey, the Rams would be held without a field goal the rest of the way.

South Kortright, playing in their fifth straight championship game, did retake the lead when Anthony
Salcido dropped down a pair of free throws with 5:44 remaining.
Margaretville center Mitch Hull sealed off the inside earning a lay-up to put his team back in front, 40-39, before Ram freshman Griffin Metzko hit the first of two foul shots to even things up again with 4:54 to play.

Ahead to stay
It was a Dylan Shaffer foul shot twenty seconds later that would put the Blue Devils in front to stay. Shaffer, playing perhaps his best basketball of the season, came off the bench to provide the Devils with a rebounding boost around the basket throughout the contest.

  It was nail biting time for the next two minutes with neither team able to capitalize. Margaretville’s senior center Hull followed up a short miss for a critical put back stretching the Blue Devils advantage to 43-40 with only 2:15 to play.

  SK appeared to get the break they were looking for when senior Dylan Cole stole a pass near halfcourt and broke towards the Ram’s end for an apparent score. But, sophomore guard Matt VanValkenburg turned on the jet burners in an attempt to defend. VanValkenburg raced from behind, finally catching Cole as he sailed through the air near the Ram shooter’s hip, changing Cole’s release just enough to force a miss. Margaretville rebounded.

“It was a huge hustle play,” Margaretville coach Jeremey Marks would say after the game. “It’s the kind of play these guys have been making all year long.”

  The VanValkenburg late game heroics weren’t limited to defense. On the Blue Devil’s offensive side of the floor, VanValkenburg penetrated into the lane, drawing the defense his way then scooped a pass to Ryan Sanford who converted a lay-up pushing the Blue Devil margin to 45-40. Seconds less than one minute remained on the clock.

  After a Cole baseline jumper failed, Reither sealed the deal sinking a pair of free throws with 44 seconds to go.

   Few would have predicted the late game defensive grind at the games beginning. With Reither hitting three’s at one end of the floor and Cole downing two’s at the other end, the action went back and forth with Margaretville in front, 17-15, at the quarter break.

   The offensive action slowed considerably in the second quarter with both teams scoring just nine points as Margaretville maintained their two-point edge.

   With the offense channeling through Margaretville center Mitch Hull, the Blue Devils turned in their best offensive effort in the opening minutes of the third quarter. An excellent passer, Hull kept the ball moving from the inside to the outside with his teammates finding opening seams. VanValkenburg’s three-point shot with 5:34 left in the quarter stretched the Blue Devil’s lead to 33-24.

   Holdridge countered for SK but VanValkenburg converted a Kyle Short pass in transition to increase the spread back to nine.

   The failure to pass Hull the ball and the Blue Devil’s only defensive lapse in the contest wiped away the Margaretville advantage during the closing three minutes of the quarter. A Trevor Holdridge baseline jumper started a nine point Ram run. The Ram scoring spree was accented by three Ram baskets realized when the Margaretville guards failed to fall back after an offensive shot with Cole sneaking behind the last Margaretville defender twice and Griffin Metzko once for baskets during the run.

   But, Reither’s three-point shot to open the final frame stemmed the SK tide setting up Margaretville’s dramatic finish.

   Three Blue Devils would score in double figures; Reither with 15, Hull with 11 and Stamford with 10. VanValkenburg added 7 for Margaretville.

   Cole paced the Rams’ attack with 13 points. Holdridge finished with 12, Metzko 8, and Salcido 6.
   The two teams travel a connected path in the post season. South Kortright (13-5), seeded seventh in Section IV, Class D, bracket hosts 10th-seed Marathon on Wednesday. The winner will face Margaretville (16-2), who earned a first round bye, in the quarterfinals in Margaretville on Saturday night.