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Lions roared, Phoenix rose in city athletics the past school year

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In an era of declining quality and quantity in many of the inner-city's public high schools, leave it to the city's lone African-American Catholic high school, Cardinal Ritter College Prep to have served as the inner-city's anchor for some of the more notable high school athletic achievements this past school year. The Lions, who compete in the Archdiocesan Athletic Association (AAA) conference, were not just a conference power or a city power; rather they were state champions, in team and individual sports alike.

The PHL had no state champion or state runner-up in any team sport, but did have two athletes capturing individual state event titles in track and field, in Soldan long jumper Traci Mills, who won the event with a leap of 17-feet-10 inches in girls Class 3, and ROTC sprinter Michael Wells, who won the 100 meters in 10.83 seconds, the 200 meters in 22.30 seconds and the 400 meters in 49.11 seconds, while taking the state's runner-up place in the long jump with a leap of 21-feet, 11.50 inches in the Class 2 boys meet. It marked the third straight season that Wells had won the 100 meters state championship, but he fell short by his lofty standards to crack the sub-10.2 second barrier.

"My biggest goal is not just to win the 100 meters, but to hit a 10.1," said Wells in a late-season meet. "I know I'm capable of doing it."

"Mike Wells has one of the highest ceilings of anybody in Missouri because he's so much better than anyone else," declares opposing Cardinal Ritter coach Ruben Albright. "He has such a high ceiling."

"Around here (in Missouri) he is just not getting the consistent competition he needs," said William Upchurch, Wells' summer coach in the Police Athletic League. When we first got him (as a high school freshman) that was his first experience running organized track."

In a school year when the Madison Prep Bears of the Public High League fell short in their bid to repeat as Missouri Class 3 boys basketball state champions by falling to Barstow of Kansas City in the semifinals, Ritter assumed the mantle by promptly beating Barstow 57-46 in the championship game, as the Lions claimed the school's seventh basketball state title.By mere coincidence, seven state titles, or medals, is the number also claimed individually by senior Charles Jones Jr. for his Ritter career.

Jones, who has signed a track and field scholarship letter of intent with the Texas Tech University Red Raiders, ended his storied Ritter career by winning three state medals as a senior in track and field to go along with the four state medals he won previously. At this spring's state meet, Jones won the 800 meters (in 1-minute, 50.19 seconds), the 400 meters (47.01 seconds) and anchored the Lions' 4x400-meter relay squad of Alvin Thompson, DeSaviour Ikner and Jonathan Henderson to come from behind victory in just under 3:20.

"He's an outstanding track athlete," says rival Jennings coach Daryl Williams of Jones. "I wish I had me one of them. The man is awesome. I take my hat off to him."

Earlier in the school year, Jones, a 6-foot-3 forward in basketball, had averaged just under 12 points and pulled down six rebounds per game to help lead the Lions to that basketball title, although fellow 6-3 senior forward Sean Clancey was the focal point of the club's attack. Clancey averaged under 23 points per game and seven boards, including a spectacular 39-point effort in a semifinal rout of Strafford which sent the Lions to the title game.

However, overshadowed in the Lions eventual state championship run was the fact that longtime head coach Marvin Neals had fought back gallantly from a stroke last summer to lead an undersized squad (no starter was taller than 6-3) to a state crown. Dealing with obvious physical limitations and restrictions because of the stroke, Neals relied more heavily on veteran assistants Ken Kaid, Leroy Jackson and Ron Walker Jr. to game-plan and mix-and-match to overcome any court shortcomings.

Clancey, Jones and 5-9 junior guard Jahmourie Robinson, who averaged 12.7 points per game, were the 'Big Three' of key players.

"It was an honor and a privilege that Coach Neals trusted not just me but all the coaches with extra authority," says Kaid. "As a coaching staff we've been together for so long we understood what he wanted to get across to the team. We knew because of his illness we needed to do more so that's what we did. However, Coach Neals still did a lot of teaching and coaching. He just did it from a cushy customized chair given to him by his wife Dorothy that sat a little higher up than the rest of our chairs."

Then there was the presumed size disadvantage, which the Lions overcame as well.

"What we lacked in size we made up for in intelligence," notes Kaid. "Everyone was aware of our version of the Big Three with Sean, CJ and Jahmourie, but what they also found out was that we have two guys who could defend anyone, in Jeff Jones (senior guard) and Isaiah Williams (senior forward) and Brandon Jackson ( a 6-6 sophomore reserve center) gave us the option to play big when we needed to and Jah Kobe Womack (6-2 senior forward) would us that added offensive punch."

Just falling two games short of another state champion, however, were the Madison Prep Bears, who became a charter member of the PHL after the old Imagine Prep school for which it previously functioned closed. Under rising coach Tony Irons, the son of former Vashon coach Floyd Irons who is also in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Madison Prep posted a 26-6 mark after graduating several key players. Senior transfer, 6-8 Arlando Cook led the Bears in scoring (13.8 points) and rebounding (9.3 boards), followed by senior Anthony Lee (10.3 points) and rising 6-7 freshman Levi Stockard (roughly eight points and seven boards).

On the PHL girls side of the state pursuit, the Lady Phoenix of Career Academy got the unlucky draw of playing eventual Class 4 defending state champion Incarnate Word in the district rounds for the second straight season and was sent home with a 20-6 mark despite a brutal schedule. All-conference stars Braennan Farrar (20.8 points) and Zhanesha Dickerson (18.3 points and 8.2 boards) led the attack.

Speaking of offensive punch, albeit in football, the Career Academy Phoenix gridiron team dominated the PHL and beyond on the way to an 11-1 record, which included blowouts of 78-0 over ROTC, 58-0 over Roosevelt, 47-0 over Northwest,44-0 over Soldan and 47-12 over Vashon. The Phoenix offense had a bevy of weapons, needless to say. Dual-threat quarterback Jaylen James passed for over 1,200 yards and rushed for over 700., Running back Marquis Stewart rushed for over 1,800 yards on 16 touchdowns, and receivers Javon Collard and Mark Frazier combined for 19 touchdown receptions.

Defensively, Karon Thomas, Valentino Armendaiz and Travis Riley led the way. Thomas led the unit with 142 stops, six sacks and five interceptions,Armendaiz had 126 tackles and Riley had seven interceptions and seven total returns for touchdowns. Riley plays safety, which could give him the label of an Ed Reed-type player, who was synonymous with the game-changing plays and defensive returns for many years with the Baltimore Ravens, but Riley sees himself as more of a finesse player cut from the mold of a former All-Pro cornerback/ return specialist.

"Ed Reed is more of a big hitter," says Riley, a 5-11, 175-pound senior-to be this fall. "I'm more of a Deion Sanders-type player. I think the key for me in getting those interceptions was looking at the quarterback, reading his eyes."

Lost amid Career Academy's league dominance was the historic season recorded by the new 'Cougars' on the block, the Carnahan Cougars who posted a 9-3 mark and the school's first winning season and district championship all at the same time. Quarterback Dontrelle Busby passed for 1,383 yards and 23 touchdowns, while rushing for 910 yards and 14 touchdowns. Running back Curtis Phillips rushed for 789 yards and receiver Eric Williams snared 22 passes for 563 yards and 13 touchdowns.Carnahan eventually lost to Lutheran North in the Class 2 sectional playoffs.

The Class 2 playoffs, is also where the Metro Panthers baseball team saw its season come to an end this school year as well. Orchard Farm ended the Panthers season at 14-4, which included the PHL co-championship with the Career Academy Phoenix. Rain coupled with playoff commitments prevented the two teams from playing their scheduled game or making the game up later.

But on the field of play, Metro pitchers Jacob Case and Vincent Phillips both fashioned 5-1 records in 30-plus innings of work each. Phillips had 55 strikeouts while Case added 46. At the plate, Sean Lundegran ranked among the entire leaders with a minimum of 50 at-bats with a .491 mark, but teammates Phillips (.591), Jacob Ratcliff (.545), Case (.543) and Dylan Bess (.500) had even higher batting marks but in fewer plate appearances.

"My team was led by sophomore Vincent Phillips and senior Jacob Case," says Metro coach Ian Goozh. "They were the two primary starting pitchers throughout the season and also the the two best all-around weapons we had..... However we ran into a very solid Orchard Farm team at their home field in the second round of the district playoffs."

The other league champion, the Career Academy Phoenix posted an 11-2 mark, although no individual statistics were logged on a consistent basis to post. But Career Academy assistant coach Cedric Benbow did allow that his son, Cedric Benbow Jr., a catcher-pitcher and Travis Riley, a pitcher-infielder, and first baseman Aaron Madden were three of the key players.

"We lost to St. Mary's (a perennial state title contender) 10-0 in the playoffs, but the score did not reflect how close the game could have been," says the coach Benbow."They got only five hits against us, but we allowed 16 passed balls

That no-hitter was a 20-0 blowout of Soldan in an abbreviated four innings.

"The game I pitched a no-hitter I just felt very confident," says Riley. "I was just looking to throw strike and keep the ball on the corners so it would be hard for them to hit."

At the same time, Benbow said Riley is not limited in his pitch selections.

"He (Riley) has three good pitches: a fastball, a curve and a change-up," the coach explains. "He loves baseball just as much as he loves football. He's got a good head on his shoulders and he's a smart, instinctive baseball player just as he is in football. He plays it like a chest player."

If the PHL had a male athlete of the year award, Riley would have merited strong consideration, for his impact play in football and baseball.

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