After graduating four senior starters from last year’s league championship squad, Athens’ Brayden Markins knows that the general public wasn’t high on the ‘Dogs’ chances of a repeat going into the season.
“At the beginning of the season, they were projecting us getting fourth in the TVC,” Markins, an Athens senior, said. “That was just kind of a punch in the face. So we thought we would come out and show them what we’re made of.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth journey, but it ended on Tuesday with Athens once again cutting nets down inside McAfee Gymnasium.
The Bulldogs held off Wellston, earning a 62-53 victory at Athens High School.
Athens (15-6 overall) improved to 10-2 in the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division, clinching at least a share of the league crown.
The Bulldogs are back-to-back TVC-Ohio champions, and win the league for the sixth time since joining the conference 11 years ago.
“Just all the hard work that we’ve put in throughout the season, I’ve been playing basketball since I was five years old,” Markins said. “Just to say that I can win TVC in back-to-back years in my last two years is just once in a lifetime opportunity for me.”
Alexander improved to 9-2 in the TVC-Ohio thanks to a 52-32 win at Vinton County on Tuesday. The Spartans can share the top spot with Athens if they defeat River Valley on Friday. Should Alexander lose, then Athens will win an outright title.
Either way, the Bulldogs know they did what they had to do in order to stake their claim to the top spot.
“They earned it,” Athens coach Mickey Cozart said. “They are literally the hardest working team that I’ve coached. They don’t take nights off in practice. No matter how much we run them, they never complain. They earned it. They earned this title. They had to go through some adversity to get it. They were able to maintain and get the job done tonight.”
The Bulldogs honored their five seniors — Markins, Andrew Stephens, Nate Trainer, Reece Wallace and Jack Cornwell — before the game, then went out and took care of business against the Rockets (6-15, 3-8 TVC-Ohio).
Wellston led 8-5 in the opening quarter, but Athens answered with a 16-0 run that allowed it to lead the rest of the way.
The Rockets went 8 minutes and 17 seconds without scoring, and the Bulldogs led 21-8 after Brayden Whiting’s field goal.
Wellston focused its defense on limiting Markins and Whiting, so Will Matters stepped up and made a trio of first-quarters 3-pointers.
“Just ball movement at the beginning of the game,” Markins said. “They were doing some weird box-and-one on me and triangle-and-two on me and Brayden Whiting. They were just leaving Will Matters open and he was hitting good shots for us.”
Three-pointers were big for the Bulldogs, as they made five in the opening quarter alone. They finished 8 of 18 from long range.
The Rockets didn’t go away quietly, however, as they trailed just 26-25 early in the third quarter.
Wellston remained in striking distance most of the second half, but Athens always had an answer.
The Rockets trailed just 45-41 after Hunter Smith’s field goal in the post with 5:10 remaining.
Athens put together an 11-0 run from there that ended any thoughts of the Rockets spoiling the Bulldogs’ big night.
Markins started the spurt with a shot in the lane.
Whiting then took over, scoring seven points in a row. The Rockets needed a timeout after Markins found Whiting with 1:30 remaining, the lead up to 54-41.
“Fourth quarter is usually our best quarter,” Markins said. “We play as hard as we can then. Our defense tightens up and when our defense tightens up, our offense opens up.”
Athens led by 15 at 56-41 after two Trainer free throws with 1:10 on the clock. The Bulldogs’ league title was a formality at that point.
Markins had another all-around solid game with 15 points, nine rebounds, four steals and two assists. Whiting led the team in scoring with 22, adding six rebounds.
Trainer also added 10 points and four rebounds, while Matters had nine points and five rebounds. Stephens handed out four assists.
Wellston’s Cyan Ervin was a big reason the game was as close as it was. The freshman was sensational, scoring 27 points on 10 of 19 shooting, including making 5 of 6 3-point attempts. He added seven rebounds and three steals.
The Bulldogs celebrated the win afterwards, cutting down nets and taking pictures on the court with friends and family.
Athens fought through adversity throughout the season to win the championship. The Bulldogs lost a December game at Alexander that put them behind in the league standings.
Even after winning the rematch against the Spartans, they lost at Meigs less than two weeks ago and lost control of their own destiny.
Athens stayed the course, and after Alexander lost to those same Meigs Marauders last week, it had an opening for another title.
The Bulldogs won their final three TVC-Ohio games, and were a perfect 6-0 on their home court against league foes.
“It’s been a good journey for these kids and they finished it the right way,” Cozart said.
Athens will conclude its regular season on Friday with a trip to Jackson to face the Ironmen.
Athens 62, Wellston 53
Wellston 8 13 16 16 — 53
Athens 19 7 17 19 — 62
WELLSTON 53 (6-15, 3-8 TVC-Ohio)
Cyan Ervin 10 2-2 27, Rylan Molihan 2 0-0 4, RJ Kemp 2 0-0 5, Hunter Smith 2 1-4 5, Josh Bodey 0 0-0 0, Evan Brown 2 0-0 5, Jordan Carey 2 0-0 5, Jon Garvin 1 0-0 2, Chase Ingalls 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 21 3-6 53; 3-point field goals: 8 (Ervin 5, Kemp, Brown, Carey 1 apiece)
ATHENS 62 (15-6, 10-2 TVC-Ohio)
Andrew Stephens 0 2-4 2, Brayden Markins 6 1-1 15, Nate Trainer 3 2-2 10, Reece Wallace 0 2-2 2, Jack Cornwell 0 2-2 2, Brayden Whiting 8 5-8 22, Will Matters 3 0-0 9, Joey Moore 0 0- 0, Jacob Sayers 0 0-0 0, Will Ginder 0 0-0 0, Trey Harris 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 20 14-19 62; 3-point field goals: 8 (Matters 3, Markins, Trainer 2 apiece, Whiting 1)
TEAM STATISTICS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
Field goals — Wellston 21-55 (.382), 3-point field goals 8-20 (.400); Athens 20-53 (.377), 3-point field goals 8-18 (.444); Free throws — Wellston 3-6 (.500), Athens 14-19 (737); Rebounds — Wellston 37 (Smith 10), Athens 34 (Markins 9); Assists — Wellston 9 (Molihan 3), Athens 12 (Stephens 4); Blocks — Wellston 4, Athens 1; Turnovers — Wellston 20, Athens 16; Steals — Wellston 10 (Ervin 3), Athens 11 (Markins 4); Team fouls — Wellston 21, Athens 12; JV game — Athens 39, Wellston 34