MARTINS FERRY - Martins Ferry veteran boys' basketball coacgh Jeff Sabatino likes his team.
What's not to like about the latest version of the Purple Riders? The Riders have a talented blend of experience and youth, some prime-time players and impressive height.
It has the makings of a quality group. It will have to be, as the Purple Riders will be a team facing a huge test virtually night in and night out.
Martins Ferry will take on 12 Division II teams, many coming off super seasons and loaded for bear once again, such as St. Clairsville, Harrison Central, Steubenville and Indian Creek.
Much of that schedule also played into the Riders finishing with a deceiving 9-12 mark last winter.
The Purple Riders pushed powerful Fort Frye to the limit before bowing in the final moments of their sectional final contest.
"I don't base success on wins and losses. Last year's team could have fared very well against some of the better teams we have had up here. So the record doesn't do last year's team justice," Sabatino said. "Many of the teams we faced last year had career seasons and they appear to be loaded again this year.
"We do have a chance to be an improved team this year. But out of our top seven players, two are freshmen and two are sophomores."
Martins Ferry lost two players via graduation. Gone are Jonathan Carlier and Barry Cusick. Both were guards.
One of Sabatino's chief concerns is the return to health of senior ace Tyler Strama. The 6-foot-2 forward enjoyed a banner junior year, averaging nearly 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.
The three-year letter-winner, however, is still rehabbing from a broken leg incurred in football season. It is uncertain when he will suit up.
The Purple Riders boast one of the premier players in the OVAC in Cody Schau. The athletic and versatile 6-3 leaper is coming off a sparkling junior campaign, one in which he nearly averaged a triple-double for the season. Schau tossed in 20 points a night to go with 11 rebounds and eight assists. He can score inside or knock down the 3-pointer.
''Cody is very athletic and versatile. He has the ability to do a lot of things and do them very well," Sabatino said. "It is rare when we have a player average 20 points a game. But Cody is much more than a scorer. His eight assists per game is the second highest season total since I have been here."
Complementing the talents of Strama and Schau is a third returning senior starter.
Taylor Shane returns to his point-guard responsibilities. The feisty 5-9 dynamo brings energy and defensive passion to the floor.
"Taylor is an intense competitor and is an excellent ball defender," Sabatino said. "Taylor has improved his perimeter shooting and possesses good leadership qualities. He is poised for a strong senior season."
Robert Vargo is a tower of strength in the paint. He is a 6-6 junior lettermen, who also earned several starts late last season. Vargo, one of the premier tight ends in the OVAC, enters big into Sabatino's plans.
"Robert carries out his assignments immaculately. He is a presence inside," Sabatino said. "Robert has great hands and feet. He is easy to coach and is a super young man."
The Purple's other junior is Dustin Schau, Cody's brother. He is a 6-foot wing who, according to Sabatino, has a good shooting stroke.
The sophomore class is spearheaded by guard Jake Barritt. The 5-7 letterman saw considerable varsity time as a freshman.
"Jake got his feet wet last year and handled himself well," Sabatino said. "He has improved tremendously this season. His physical strength and confidence have both shown marked improvement. Jake also has improved on the defensive end of the floor."
Another sophomore looking for varsity minutes is Isaiah Sears. He is a 5-6 guard who brings quickness and hustle to the floor. Sabatino also likes his outside shooting ability.
Athletic Lucas Agnew is also in the mix for playing time. He is a 6-foot forward who possesses nice versatility.
Two other sophomores are on the varsity roster. Josiah Burress is a 6-2 leaper, while Kyle Rine is a rugged 5-11 forward who also can knock down a jumper.
Four freshmen are in line to get varsity uniforms, one of whom will see significant time.
Emilio Appolloni brings a bundle of talent with his 6-8 frame. He is manning Strama's starting spot.
"Emilio is very skilled for a big man. He has invested a lot of time in working on his game," Sabatino said. "He is good with his back to the bucket and also is a nice shooter. Defensively, he can help erase a lot of mistakes."
Arjay Burress is another athletic frontcourt performer. He is a 5-11 forward who "is very athletic and brings energy to the floor. Arjay has a nice basketball future," Sabatino said.
James Edwards is a promising 5-10 guard. He is an excellent shooter with a high basketball IQ. Edwards plays big into the Riders' backcourt future.
"James possesses a lot of basketball skills. He has a good basketball pedigree."
Cat-quick Kalil Bass rounds out the varsity team. He is a 5-6 waterbug who can prove a defensive nemesis.