The Cardinal Ritter Lions rolled a lucky seven last weekend at Mizzou Arena, while their enduring coaching legend, Marvin Neals, merely added more luster to his high school basketball legacy. Now both may be hard-pressed for an encore next season.
Last season, the Lions 6-foot-3 senior forward Sean Michael Clancey had initial reservations about accepting the number 33 jersey, worn by former Ritter superstar and prep All-American, Cameron Biedscheid, who signed and played with Notre Dame, until recently. Now following a banner senior campaign of his own, topped off by a Missouri Class 3 boys basketball title, Clancey can exhale.
Indeed, Clancey turned out to be the club's catalyst all season, and more importantly in the two games that mattered most: the state semifinals and the state championship final. He had game-highs of 39 points in the former and 22 points in the latter to lead the Lions to their seventh state boys basketball title in the school's history recently in Columbia.
"This is the best feeling in the world right now," said Clancey, who also pulled down a club-high nine rebounds.. "To know that when we come back into the school 10, 20 years from now, that we'll be seeing our names up on the wall with all of the other state championships, it's a great feeling."
After being down 35-28 with 2 minutes 25-seconds remaining in the third period, Ritter closed with a seemingly overwhelming 13-0 run to lead 41-35 going into the fourth quarter. But Barstow would subsequently go on an 8-0 and 10-2 run to regain the lead 45-43 with just under four minutes left. However that's when the Lions delivered the knockout blow by draining 11 of 14 free throws in the last 1:20 to put the contest away. Clancey nailed five from the charity stripe, while also pulling down three boards in that span, while Charles Jones dropped in four free throws.
"As we all know basketball is a game of runs," said Barstow coach Billy Thomas ...."And today was no different. We matched up with them and they came through and really picked it up there in a stretch that kind of put the game out of reach."
Led by 6-foot-6 sophomore Jeriah Horne's 20 points and 11 rebounds and 5-6 freshman Jacob Gilyard's 10 points, the Barstow Knights made a game of it. They led 26-25 at the half and made Clancey work for his 22 points: He connected on just five of 14 from the field, but he knocked 11 of 12 from the free throw line.
"It was a hard 22," admitted Clancey,, who was often times boxed by Barstow's solid defense.
"It was a heck of a game," said Neals, "Barstow has a very good basketball team. I can see why they are and we were fortunate to win this game."
For Neals, who was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame way back in 1991, after he had retired from coaching to go into school administration, it marked his fifth state title as a head coach: One with Soldan in 1981 and three previous championships as Cardinal Ritter's mentor in 2003, 2006 and 2010. It was the seventh state crown for the Lions' program, as Preston Thomas guided them to state championships in 1990, 1994 and 1995.
But Neals, who has a prolific 654 career victories against a mere 214 defeats, no doubt derived extra pleasure and gratitude for this title, given that he suffered a major stroke last Father's Day, which put his coaching future in serious doubt.
"My players, former players and current players, they rallied around me and I vowed that I would do everything possible to come back and coach again," relayed Neals. "That was my motivation when I was going through therapy."
Neals said if his health is good, he would be willing to come back for another season at the helm. Meanwhile, four starters from the lineup who definitely won't be coming back are graduating seniors Clancey, Charles Jones, Jeff Jones (no relation) and Isaiah Williams. Save for his clutch shots down in the stretch in the clincher, Clancey saved his most explosive output for the state semifinals. In what became a 63-45 rout of the Strafford Indians, Clancey scored a season-high 39 points, including an array of crowd-pleasing, team-igniting dunks.
"My team loves it," said Clancey. "They get hyped."
"We saw a good player get off," said Strafford coach Mike Wilson. "Our effort just wasn't that good."
"I just came out and played my game," said Clancey. "My teammates were passing me the ball and once I hit a couple of shots, they told me to go, to keep putting up shots, to keep getting to the basket and doing what I was doing."
"He (Clancey) has had a lot of big games," said Ritter assistant Ken Kaid. "He's been playing well all season, but scoring-wise this was his biggest game."
But while Clancey was producing offensively, Ritter's best weapon in the end was its defense.
"I have always said our defense is the key to our success," said Neals. "We have to play good defense and we have to work together."
Neals first won a state title as an assistant coach at Vashon in 1971 under head coach Ron Coleman and the Wolverines and closed out his last coaching stint before retiring in 1990 as head coach of the Missouri Class 3A state runner-up Soldan Tigers. After a 10-year retirement, then Cardinal Ritter coach Preston Thomas lured Neals back into the fraternity in 2000, to take over a Lions program that Thomas was leaving to coach one of the Harlem Globetrotters' teams for a few years.
Three years later, behind hot-shooting guard Ken Burke, Neals led the Lions to a perfect 31-0 season and the Missouri Class 2A state title.
"When everybody talks about all the great players the program has had they forget about Kenny Burke," said Neals.
For this edition of Cardinal Ritter players, it was their first time in the state's final four tournament, to say nothing of their first state title. But Charles Jones has been a multiple state title winner in track and field as an 800-meters open champion and a member of relay teams which have won state titles, but he put the inevitable comparisons to rest.
"There's no comparison," he said holding backs tears and clutching on to his medal each team member his given for winning the basketball championship."This is much better."