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Published: Sunday, 3/24/2013

No shortage of inspiration with Rogers

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

COLUMBUS — The woes of the Toledo Public Schools, in a long and slow academic and financial decline, have been well documented. Athletics took a hit, too.

Sports were cut, feeder programs decimated, the future anything but certain. So the non-TPS members of the tradition-rich City League bailed and the six public schools that remained were left for dead.

Rogers High breathed some life into the corpse, and anyone who cares about sports in our city had to appreciate and applaud the Rams’ run to the Division I state championship game.

But Earl Morris’ squad ran into a dead end in the third quarter Saturday night, an eight-minute nightmare that led to a 76-67 loss for the unranked Rams to under-ranked Mentor.

Before colliding with a disciplined, yet up-tempo band of Mentor sharpshooters who turned a three-point halftime deficit into a stunning 17-point lead after three quarters, the Rams’ postseason run gave us all — city and suburbs, public and private — something to embrace.

All the City League teams that had been to Columbus in recent years — St. John’s Jesuit, Whitmer, Central Catholic, and Libbey — are no longer in the City League. Libbey is a field without dreams now that exists only in memory. The others are in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference.

Few blamed them and the rest for leaving. They had to worry about their athletes and the competition and the future.

Even though basketball was still the best thing going in the redefined City League, few were expecting any trips to Columbus, especially at the Division I level.

But there was Rogers, plowing through St. John’s and Central Catholic in the district tournament, then winning two more in the regional before upsetting Cincinnati Walnut Hills in the state semis.

And there was Rogers, among the smallest D-I schools in Ohio with 381 boys in the upper three grades, going against Mentor, 999 boys strong, and never blinking as Devonte Pratt’s incredible 21-point first half — he was 9 of 11 from the field, including hitting all three of his 3-point tries — put the Rams up at the break.

The odds may still have been long, but it was no different than when the Rams played four straight at Savage Arena in the district and regional rounds. Even Rogers coach Morris figured “we had about a 5 percent chance to come out.

“So we’re playing with the whole city on our shoulders. Our league broke up but, you know, it was very insulting to say that TPS didn’t have good basketball. We had four decent teams in the city that could have played with anyone.”

That might have been a slight exaggeration, but the Rams certainly proved they could, at least until running into a brick wall in the second half against Mentor.

The Cardinals, ranked No. 8 in the final state poll of the regular season, sidelined previously unbeaten and top-ranked Columbus Northland in the state semis, then shot the lights out and dominated the boards against Rogers.

Mentor made 10 treys, five in each half, and used 20 offensive rebounds to turn a lot of misses into points.

“We got away from the game plan of playing good defense,” Morris said afterward. “We gave up too many easy shots. You’ve got to guard people; it’s that simple.”

Then his voice softened a bit.

“But, hey, the kids gave us all they had,” said Morris.

A few minutes earlier, a sobbing Tony Kynard was buried in his coach’s big embrace.

Kynard got the Rams here, but could not push them over the finish line. The flashy guard didn’t hit a field goal until early in the fourth quarter. He and Clemmye Owens, Rogers’ two leading scorers on the season, were 8 of 33 combined from the field.

“One night you do it, one night you don’t,” said Morris. “That’s basketball.”

Yes, indeed. In the City League, where the Rams proved there’s still a little life, and anywhere else.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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