Bluejays face Ash Grove in Friday's semifinal round
COLUMBIA - It's only been seven years since their last Final Four appearance, but for the Charleston Bluejays that's an eternity.
At a school where success is measured by state championships, the Bluejays reached the Final Four for the first time since their state championship season in 1996 with a 59-51 win against Hancock in the Class 3 state quarterfinals last Saturday.
Now Charleston will try to add to its tradition-rich history with its 10th state championship.
The Bluejays, ranked No. 2 in Class 3 with a 27-3 record, will begin their quest on Friday afternoon with a semifinal game against No. 3 ranked Ash Grove at 4:45 p.m. at the Hearnes Center in Columbia.
Top-ranked and undefeated Cardinal Ritter (29-0) will play Lincoln Prep Academy in the other semifinal at 6:20 p.m. on Friday.
The championship game is set for 7:55 on Saturday night while the third place game will take place at 4:45 p.m.
Bluejay head coach Danny Farmer is no stranger to the Final Four, leading the Scott County Central Bravettes to eight appearances and five state championships.
But this is his first trip as the head coach at Charleston.
"We're really excited," said Farmer. "They want to go up and win. I trust that these guys will be ready. They've been ready all year and they've been focused all year."
Farmer admits to wanting a shot at Cardinal Ritter, but he knows that Ash Grove is standing in the way.
"I would love to have a crack at (Ritter) because I think they're going to be there," said Farmer. "Ash Grove is going to be a tough team to get by, but we would love to play Cardinal Ritter."
Ash Grove (27-4), located in Southwest Missouri, has won 15 games in a row dating back to January 21.
The Pirates are a strong perimeter shooting team and are known for crashing the boards.
"At times we get to where we shoot pretty good from the outside," said Ash Grove head coach Rick Creed. "We'd like to think that we can crash the boards and get some strong rebounds and putbacks."
With four players averaging double figures in scoring, the Pirates offer up a balanced scoring attack.
Six-foot-3 senior Jeremy Nicholson leads the way with 19.8 points per game and 7.8 rebounds on average. He's made 61 3-pointers this year and is a very good free throw shooter.
Cory Adamson, a 6-4 center, averages 14 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and he's also capable of hitting the outside shot.
Sophomore point guard Shane Nicholson averages 13.3 points and leads the team with 146 assists.
Senior Jerod Floyd (6-1, 200 pounds) follows up with 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Landon Small, a 6-1 junior, rounds out the starting lineup.
The Pirates can also bring a pair of 6-4, 200-pound players off the bench in Nick Codutti and Brandon White.
"I like to think that our strength is our balance," said Creed. "I like to think that we play solid defense in the halfcourt and fullcourt. I think we're capable of running up and down the floor and I think at times we're capable of playing the halfcourt game as well."
The Pirates' four losses were to Jefferson City Helias, Logan-Rogersville, White Station, Tenn., and Ozark, all larger schools.
And while Ash Grove plays some tough teams, Charleston's slate, which includes the Sikeston Invitational, the Riverbend Classic and the regular season schedule of the SEMO Conference, ranks as one of the toughest schedules in the state in Class 3.
Farmer is hoping that his schedule is prepared him for anything Ash Grove brings to the table.
"I'm kind of banking that Ash Grove hasn't seen our style of play in Southeast Missouri," said Farmer. "I think our conference alone is a tough enough schedule for Class 3. And then not only our conference, we step out of it and play in the Riverbend Classic and we've gone into Illinois to play Benton. I don't think Ash Grove has seen what we've seen all year long."
The Bluejays, which are undefeated against Missouri teams, owe their three losses to Arkansas teams Mills and Blytheville and Illinois squad Benton.
All three losses were by four points or less.
But the Bluejays' most impressive feat in the regular season was running the table in the SEMO Conference with an 8-0 mark.
Charleston's frontline of 6-foot-8 Kewain Gant and 6-6 sophomore Ashton Farmer was Southeast Missouri's tallest this year.
Farmer leads the team with 13.8 points per game. Gant is a force on defense, blocking seven shots per game while averaging 13 points and 8.4 rebounds.
On the perimeter, ultra-quick guards Marcus Biles and Deshaundray Hamilton are capable of scoring in bunches while playing tight pressure defense.
Biles averages 12.4 points per game and 4.7 rebounds. Hamilton chips in with 8.9 points per game.
Trentez Lane, a 5-11, 185 pound junior, is a steady, fundamentally sound player that averages 8.1 points per game.
Joshua Strayhorn, a 6-2 junior, is the team's top outside shooter, averaging 6.5 points per game. Dadrian Jones, a 5-11 senior, is the only other player that gets significant playing time off the bench.
"We plan to take advantage of our size advantage," said Farmer. "They're going to have to worry about our height and our quickness. I don't think Ash Grove is going to be as quick as some of the teams we've faced all year. And I don't think they've seen much of our quickness."
The Bluejays have won 17 in a row dating back to January 7 with most of their wins being of the lopsided variety.
"I think we're playing okay," said Farmer. "We're responding to whatever challenge that's been before us. I'm not that much concerned about Ash Grove or anybody right now. I'm more concerned about our team. I want to make sure that we're playing good defensively and rebounding and doing the little things."
Here's a look at the other semifinal matchup: Cardinal Ritter vs. Lincoln Prep Academy.
The Lions enter the game as heavy favorites over the Kansas City-based Tigers (17-8).
Cardinal Ritter hasn't just beaten every team on its schedule, they've won easily.
Only six teams have played the Lions to within 10 points. And their closest game since district play was a 53-42 win against Berkeley in the district championship.
Cardinal Ritter, which has won three state championships with the last coming in 1996, has produced NBA and big-time college talent over the years, including Georgetown's Jahidi White, Duke's Chris Carrawell and Arizona's Loren Woods.
This year's team doesn't have the size of the old Ritter squads, but Farmer says they are just as dangerous.
With Ken Burke and Antoine Vinson, both 5-10 guards, the Lions have good outside shooting, good defense and good ball-handling.
Inside the Lions got to 6-4 junior Terry Evans and 6-2, 200-pound senior Dewon Byrd.
Alexander Barnett, a 6-3 sophomore, rounds out the starting lineup.
"Ritter's very talented and I know a couple of their players through the St. Louis Eagles in the summer," said Farmer. "I know the Burke kid and the Evans kid, and they're ranked very high in the St. Louis area. The Evans kid is probably one of the most athletic kids you'll see. If you think you've seen some athletes in this area, you've really seen one when you see the Evans kid. The Burke kid is a Division I point guard. They're scoring comes from their two guards."
Lincoln Prep Academy is the underdog among the Final Four teams. With eight losses and a lineup that features two freshmen, the Tigers got hot at the right time, reeling off nine straight wins while upsetting Hogan Prep Academy in the district semifinals 56-51.
The Tigers are led in scoring by 5-9 junior guard Robert Nutt, who averages 15.6 points while making 46 3-pointers this year.
No other player averages double figures for the defensive minded Tigers.
Lincoln Prep allows an average of 45 points per game, holding eight opponents under 40 points this year. Included in that total was a 49-30 win against Lafayette County in the quarterfinals.
Randy Valerio, a 5-8 senior, is second on the team in scoring with 9.7 points per game, canning 31 3-pointers on the year.
While both guard don't offer up much size, the Tigers have the biggest lineup in the Final Four, with all three post players checking in at 215 pounds or better.
Gregg Smith, a 6-7, 215-pound freshman, averages 6.6 points and leads the team with 10.7 rebounds.
Brandon Coleman, a 6-5, 235-pound freshman, averages 6.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, while 6-3, 250-pound junior Carlton King averages 5.4 points and 4.8 rebounds.
The Tigers also bring a couple 5-9 guards off the bench in Ronald Chisolm and Darius Uche, both capable of hitting the outside shot.