By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
The tears were real.
The smiles were glowing.
The memories will last forever.
And it all belongs to the Ravenna High School boys basketball team.
For the first time since 1978-79 and only the second time in school history, the Ravens are league champions.
It was an uphill climb that spanned decades, contending seasons that fell short and a peak that seemingly was growing taller every year.
The 2022-23 Ravens, however, finished the climb.
In thrilling fashion, too, defeating Woodridge 61-52 on Friday inside James L. Coll Gymnasium on Senior Night to clinch at least a share of the Metro Athletic Conference title.
The Ravens and Bulldogs had entered Friday night deadlocked in a tie for first place in the league, and the Dogs had defeated Ravenna earlier this season (66-59 on Jan. 3).
A raucous first half stormed Ravenna to a 35-15 lead, then the Ravens (16-4, 11-2 MAC) withstood a furious rally from the Bulldogs, who got as close as 51-47 in the fourth quarter, to secure the historic victory.
Understandly, the postgame emotions were high between players, coaches, parents, students, fans and staff.
Head coach Marlon Jones, a Ravenna graduate and former player, was visibly emotional and spoke as such after celebrating with his team and cutting down the net.
“What an absolutely amazing feeling,” Jones said jubilantly. “It is hard to explain. From coming in as a kid to watch the team play, to going to school here and playing here, to taking over the program when we were down … we finally did it.
“This is a big win for our entire community, it is a big win for our school district and it is a big win for our boys,” Jones said.
While Ravenna has experienced some seasons of success since the last title in 1978-79, a team coached by Dave McBee, the Ravens’ program has found itself on the bottom half of the final standings more often than not.
In fact, entering this season, the Ravens owned a 32-79 overall record and 17-53 mark during league play over the previous five seasons.
The 2022-23 season was always going to be different, though.
At least, that is what you would hear if you asked and talked to any of the members of the team or coaching staff.
“This group was determined,” Jones said. “We never shied away from talking about what our goal was. We wanted to win the championship, and we felt like we were good enough to do it. We talked all year about what we needed to do to win the championship and every single one of our players bought into it and sacrificed so that we could have a night like tonight.
“We (the coaching staff) took over this program when this year’s seniors were freshmen, and we started talking about a championship then. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of tough losses, but we grew together and we molded ourselves into the team you see now. I am so proud of these boys, and I love them.”
The Bulldogs did everything they could to try to spoil the party. After falling behind by 20 at halftime (35-15), Woodridge played the second half with far more aggression on both ends of the court.
Offensively, the attacked and forced the issue. Defensively, they needed to speed the game up and try to create turnovers and they were successful in both with a three-quarter-court 1-2-2 trapping zone press.
“We knew they would come at us, and we had to be ready. It was going to be our test,” Jones said. “We had to sustain it and try to match it point for point as best as we could. We have been preaching mental toughness all year, and we were pushed to our limit in the second half. You have to give Woodridge a ton of credit. They are a great team, and they are coached really well.”
Woodridge made a little bit of ground by the end of the third quarter, cutting its deficit to 16 (46-30), but the momentum was certainly in its favor.
It carried over to the fourth quarter, where the Bulldogs outscored the Ravens 22-15, and pulled to within 48-42 early in the fourth quarter and then 51-47 with about three minutes to play on a 3-pointer by Sam Mencer from the deep right corner.
Ravenna, which had been slow playing its offense to try to use the clock against Woodridge — a plan that also led to some stagnant offensive possessions and limited scoring opportunities — finally found some offense by going back to its attacking philosophy.
The result was a flurry of points that helped push Ravenna’s lead back up to 59-47.
A left-corner 3 by Justice Haven, a running 6-foot bank shot by Haven, a steal at midcoast by Mason Ross, who went the length of the floor for the easy lay-in and a drive-and-dish from Maykai O’Neal to Emmanuel Miller for a layup.
The storm of points ultimately sealed the victory for the Ravens and the championship.
Haven led all scorers in the game with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 3-of-5 from 3-point range. Ross added 12 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, four blocked shots and took a charge.
Every Ravenna senior, all nine of them, provided championship-making plays throughout the course of the game, including Maykai O’Neal, Dave Gregory, Emmanuel Miller, Pavel Henderson, Marcus Bibson, Bryce Moneypenny and Thurman Treadwell, in addition to Ross and Haven.
Woodridge’s top scorer was Branden Evans. The freshman had a big second half, scoring 14 of his team-high 18 points. Evan Duve and Anthony Helton each scored eight for the Bulldogs (10-10, 10-3 MAC).
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