Behind Connor Stonebraker’s 23 points, Versailles flexed its muscle in the Division III sectional opener with a 31-point romp over National Trail.
Vandalia, OH – They hadn’t played in ten days, but not so you would notice.
There was some concern amongst them if the layoff would show up in the form of rust – not as sharp as they’d like to be.
These were the questions, concerns, leading up to Wednesday’s Division III sectional opener between #1 seed Versailles (21-1) and the #21 seed, National Trail (4-19). No one doubted that Versailles would emerge on top, but how would they look doing it?
Would they look like a legitimate threat to capture the OHSAA Div. III title three weeks from now, capable of fighting their way through the inevitable district and regional challenge from teams like Meadowdale, Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, or Madeira?
It took about four minutes of the first quarter Wednesday for National Trail to answer in the affirmative. The Blazers might have felt like a certain Eastern European country at about that same time – helpless – as Versailles jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead, they lead 16-6 by quarter’s end, and 36-12 by halftime.
The newly-anointed Midwest Athletic Conference Player of The Year, Connor Stonebraker, had 19 of those 36 points and was in a word, or two, unstoppable or indefensible. Take your pick.
It ended up Versailles 59, National Trail 28, in a game that Tigers’ coach Travis Swank would later characterize as one where they did a lot of little things to his satisfaction.
“If you were writing about baseball I guess you would say that we hit a lot of singles tonight,” said Swank. “But at this time of the year those singles can hurt.”
Translation: Singles come easier than the three-run homer from behind the arc. Go with the sure thing and get as many shots in close proximity of the rim as you can.
Stonebraker would finish with a game-high 23 points, and he had help. Teammate Ben Ruhenkamp leaned on a strong first half to finish with 10. Jaydon Litten characterized their small-ball attack by hitting the only 3-pointer of the night for the Tigers, and finished with 8. A.J. Griesdorn had 6, Eli McEldowney and Cole Hamilton each had 4, Noah McEldowney and Ethan Dickey each had 2.
Wyatt House led National Trail with 8 points, as the Blazers wrapped up their inaugural year in the Western Ohio Athletic Conference with a 4-19 record.
Connor Stonebraker said it just felt good to play after the layoff, and admitted surprise that he was named his conference’s top player for 2022.
“I was a little surprised,” he said. “There were a lot of deserving players …Jaydon, obviously, Dave Homan (New Bremen), Reece Busse (New Bremen)…yeah, I was a little surprised. There were a lot of deserving players.”
As far as any curiosity from one of the area’s most ardent fan bases…how did opening night of the second season feel?
“It felt good to get out and get some confidence back,” said Stonebraker. “We came out quick and really set the tone for the game, and it was good for me to know that I can do anything I need to do out there. My teammates trust me as much as I trust myself, so I know they’ve got my back 100%.”
And…just how good are the Tigers, between now and the next three weeks?
“I guess you’ll have to come out and see,” he answered. Touche’!
Travis Swank said they hit a lot of singles. What he meant was they didn’t rely on the three-point shot, but solid defense, rebounding, and points in transition. Not until late in the second half did Jaydon Litten finally torch one from behind the arc from just in front of his own bench.
Travis Swank admitted…he liked what he saw.
“We have a tendency to look for home runs sometimes, instead of being content with singles,” he explained. “So we want to resist the temptation to swing for the fences sometimes, be content with singles, because when we do that we’re pretty tough to beat and we make people hurt. We want to execute a little sharper, a little better, and that’s really what we wanted to do tonight in the second half.
“Could we have been better? Yes. We’d like to be sharp in this tournament. We have a little rust that we need to knock off, and hopefully we did that tonight because we’re going to have a tough opponent on Saturday when we play Miami East.”
East advanced in Wednesday’s first game, knocking off Three Rivers Conference rival Bethel by a 61-42 margin. And coming off a strong season (15-6, co-champ of the TRC)…with a history of playing a tough zone defense…the Vikings will make those singles come tougher.
“They play really well defensively, whether it’s man or zone,” added Swank.
“We don’t see a lot of zone in the MAC, and with the layoff we were able to work on it. We see a lot of straight up physical man-to-man, and I’m sure they’ll mix up some things…they play a lot of man but I’m sure they’ll show some zone, as well. We have to be ready for whatever they do.”
Nothing short of Wednesday’s win was more important that the confidence boost that Connor Stonebraker got by scoring 23 points in his tourney debut. He has lots of help, for sure, but regardless, a 6’7″ player who’s athletic and has touch around the rim thrives on positive reinforcement.
“It was big for him, I know, just to gets some easy looks early on and have the ball go through the rim,” said Swank. “It’s what we really needed for the whole team tonight. Just get some easy ones, because this (Student Activity Center) is never an easy venue to play, to shoot in, so for us to come out and play like we did…maybe that will carry us through on Saturday.”
I guess…you’ll have to come out, and see!