WOODSTOCK — For the five seniors on River Ridge’s roster, the final home game of their careers could not have gone much better.
One season after winning three games and finishing 0-16 in region play, River Ridge beat Creekview 52-32 last Tuesday night to claim the team’s ninth win overall and fifth within region.
The Knights (9-14, 5-9) now sit in a tie for fifth in Region 6AAAAAA, while the loss dropped Creekview (5-16, 2-10) to the bottom of the region standings.
River Ridge won only twice within region during the 2017-18 season, giving it a 2-31 region record over the past two seasons, so last Tuesday night’s victory seemed a bit sweeter for a senior class that had endured trials and adversity over the past few seasons.
“I see the difference even from the beginning of this season, even in the smiles after games,” River Ridge coach Aaron Darling said. “We had a really tough first five games this season, and I started to see the ‘here we go again’ look on some of the kids’ faces, but they’ve really bought in, and my whole thing is to just compete, no matter if we’re up 30 or down 30.”
Since starting the season 0-5 overall with a 0-2 region record, River Ridge is 9-9 in its last 18 games, with a 5-7 record against region opponents. The Knights knocked off Sequoyah, the No. 3-ranked team in Class AAAAAA, earlier this season.
For a team with a number of underclassmen playing major minutes, the flashes of potential have been welcomed bright spots.
“You see glimpses in each one of them,” Darling said. “We’re at the point in practice now where we’ve got kids close to fighting each other because they’re competing that hard. Obviously, we don’t want them to fight, but that level of intensity is what we want, and I think you’re starting to see that seep over into games now.”
Both teams struggled to find offense in the first quarter Tuesday night, but the second quarter saw each side begin to make shots. A 17-8 run by River Ridge ended with senior Will Apple completing a three-point play on a fast break, and the Knights took a momentum they did not lose for the remainder of the game.
River Ridge began to use its size advantage in the second quarter, with sophomores Jared Russo and Braden Pierce asserting themselves on both ends.
Freshmen David Hasraj and Jackson Head, along with sophomore Grant Portera, each began to find their shooting stroke, and the Knights took a 22-17 lead into halftime. Head finished with 10 points while Portera finished with eight.
“I think getting beat by Sequoyah last Friday kind of kicked us into gear a little bit,” Darling said. “We played well on Saturday, and we’re starting to get that confidence. We’re starting to peak at the right time.”
Creekview utilized full-court defensive pressure for all four quarters, but beyond a few instances, it was unable to find quick offense off River Ridge turnovers.
Apple was efficient, scoring game-high 12 points while also handling Creekview’s defensive pressure and finding teammates for easy buckets.
“Will is a true point guard to me because he’s not going to force it,” Darling said. “He takes smart shots and he has a presence with the ball. He’s going to be a hard one to replace because there’s a calmness I have when he has the ball in his hands.”
Russo scored on back-to-back three-point plays to begin the third quarter and aimed to put an exclamation point on the game a few minutes later. The 6-foot-8 forward took a steal from midcourt to the basket, but he fell awkwardly below the rim following a missed dunk.
After a brief stoppage of play, Russo was escorted to the locker room with an apparent arm injury.
The 32 points were a season low for Creekview, which was led by Spencer McDonald’s 10 points.
“Frustrating game for us,” Creekview coach Casey Gramling said. “We just need to keep working and believing in each other. We have a great chance to turn things around with four home games to end the regular season. Also, our thoughts and prayers go out to Jared. Hopefully, his injury isn’t that serious.”
River Ridge started all five seniors to begin the game, and Darling reinserted the group for the game’s final minutes. The Knights’ fans and players erupted when senior C.J. Monger scored a pair of baskets in the final minutes.
“When he scored those points, it was just a cool thing to experience because he deserves it,” Darling said. “All our seniors work their butts off, and to see them do what they did tonight was huge.”