By Jerod Young • Jerod Young • 

Dayton Pirates begin title defense today vs. Riverside

Pirates coach Ron Hop faced the difficultly of having less than half of his team to start the season. The majority of the team was busy competing for a state football championship and didn’t start practicing until Dec. 6.

Dayton (18-6, 13-1) — the defending 3A state champion — has reached the state playoffs again this year, and it plays host at 7:30 p.m. today vs. Riverside (16-8, 6-2).

It’s now February, and Hop has conquered the challenge and found bright spots during the quest. Not only did he get his full team back, but he also found out he has a core group of freshman that are ready to play at the varsity level. Freshmen Jarred Ashley, Zach Spink, and Devin Nowlin have all had at least one game where they scored 10 or more points. Other freshmen like Riley Hanisch, Keon Blanco and Elijah Shadden have come off the bench for Dayton and provided valuable minutes and production.

“They’ve done a good job,” Hop said. “They’ve been great for the team. We’ve had some injuries, which forced them into action and they just got comfortable and it’s really helped the team.”

The production of younger players has allowed veteran players like Nathan Bernards, Justin Sutton, and Forrest Garcia the ability to teach the younger players off the court, and find better shots while in the game.

“Nate was in that position when he was a freshman, so I think he understands,” Hop said. “We had a conversation early in the season, and I told him that he was in their position once and now he’s in a position to help make them better. The dynamic is good because the seniors don’t push them too hard or too soft.”

The Pirates enter the state playoffs having won 10 of their last 11 games. Riverside is also on a bit of a hot streak, but Dayton has been here many times before. Dayton won the 3A state championship last season by defeating Horizon Christian 58-35. Dayton reached the championship game in 2010 and 2011 as well. Riverside lost 76-71 to Horizon Christian in the first round of last years’ playoffs and fell to the Hawks 76-38 in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

“They’re a good team,” Hop said. “Last time we played they beat us by four, and both teams have improved. … We just have to play our basketball. It’s about us and how we play. It’s not about them.”

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