LONDONDERRY, Ohio — Of all the players on the current Blue Devils roster, there is a strong possibility that 7-foot-1 sophomore Zach Loveday was the shortest member of the group the last time these things happened.
Needless to say, it had been quite a while.
The Gallia Academy boys basketball team picked up its first 20-win season in 15 years and also secured the program’s first district berth in a decade with a hard-fought 42-34 decision over sixth-seeded Zane Trace on Friday night in a Division II sectional championship game at Larry Jordan Gymnasium on the campus of Southeastern High School in Ross County.
The third-seeded Blue Devils (20-3) led wire-to-wire in the 32-minute affair, but the hosts were never ahead by more than three possessions until the final 20 seconds of regulation — and that 10-point cushion lasted all of five seconds as the Pioneers (13-9) simply refused to go away over the course of the night.
The Blue and White led by at least eight points in each of the four quarters of play, but ZTHS always found a way pull back to within striking distance — although the guests never could quite get over the hump.
Clinging to a mere 27-25 cushion, the Blue Devils ended the final 2:58 of the third quarter on a 6-0 run that resulted in a 33-25 advantage headed into the finale.
The Pioneers answered with a 6-2 run to start the fourth while closing back to within 35-31 with 4:29 left, but Gallia Academy countered with a 7-1 run over the next four-plus minutes — which all but sealed the deal on the final outcome.
The eight-point victory allowed the Blue Devils to secure the program’s 17th overall sectional title, as well as the first since the 2008 campaign. Gallia Academy also last won 20 games in a season back in 2003, which was also the last time the Blue and White captured a district championship.
The Blue Devils are now headed to the Ohio University Convocation Center, where they will face the winner of the Fairfield Union-New Lexington contest in a D-2 district semifinal at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Given the fact that his troops have spent a good portion of this season tearing down historical walls, fifth-year GAHS coach Gary Harrison was more than thrilled to see this group make another giant leap forward — especially considering that this latest hurdle wasn’t the easiest of things to clear.
“I give a lot of the credit to our kids and to the coaching staff for what we did tonight and what we’ve done this season,” Harrison said. “We knew that Zane Trace was going to be a battle for us, and it was. That’s a good ball team over there and we had to work for four quarters to get out of here with this one, but that’s what makes it so special.
“The kids have worked hard and the staff has worked hard to get this program back to the Convo, and seeing how the community has supported us this year has been great. We believed we could do this … and now it’s a reality.”
The Pioneers opted to have multiple defenders hovering around Loveday throughout the course of the game, opening up opportunities for Gallia Academy players to pick up the scoring slack.
Cory Call ended up answering that call for the Blue Devils, as the junior scored at least three points in each quarter en route to pouring in a game-high 15 points.
Both Loveday and Call combined on the first 10 GAHS points, which led to leads of 6-0 and 10-2 over the opening seven minutes of play.
ZTHS — which went almost four minutes with a point — snapped another four-minute scoring drought with 11 seconds left as Isaac Beam converted a basket to make it a 10-4 contest after one period of action.
Call capped a small 6-4 run with a basket with 2:45 left for a 16-8 cushion, then Caleb Henry gave the hosts their largest first half lead at 19-10 with a basket at the 2:09 mark.
Zane Trace, however, retaliated with seven straight points over the next 2:26 while cutting the deficit down to two points at 19-17.
Call added a single free throw with 28 seconds left, giving the Blue and White a slim 20-17 edge at the intermission.
With the defense tight on both ends of the floor, shot attempts were at a premium. GAHS went 9-of-21 from the field in the opening 16 minutes, while the Red and Blue were 7-of-15 from the floor over that same span.
The Blue Devils owned a small 10-7 edge on the glass at the break, and the Pioneers committed seven of the 13 first half turnovers.
Zane Trace twice closed the deficit down to three points in the opening two minutes of the third frame, but ultimately never came closer than two points as a Beam basket with 3:10 left made it 27-25.
Evan Wiseman followed with a basket and Call added a free throw, then Justin McClelland capped the Blue Devils’ pivotal third quarter finish with a trifecta from the top of the key just before the buzzer — giving the hosts a 33-25 lead headed into the finale.
Gabe O’Dell finished a 6-2 ZTHS run with a basket at the 4:29 mark, making it a 35-31 contest. Call, McClelland and Wiseman came up with seven of the next eight points over the next four-plus minutes, giving the Blue and White a 42-32 cushion with 20 seconds left.
Colby Swain hit a bucket five seconds later to complete the scoring in the eight-point outcome.
The Blue Devils outrebounded Zane Trace by a 20-14 overall margin, with both teams hauling in eight offensive boards apiece. GAHS also committed 11 of the 21 turnovers in the game.
Gallia Academy connected on 15-of-35 shot attempts for 43 percent, including a 2-of-8 effort from three-point range for 25 percent. The hosts were also 10-of-16 at the free throw line for 63 percent.
Loveday and McClelland followed Call with eight points apiece, while Wiseman and Henry completed the winning tally with respective efforts of six and five markers.
Loveday led GAHS with 12 rebounds and six blocked shots, both of which were game-highs. Call hauled in three caroms, while Wiseman and McClelland each snagged two boards.
The Pioneers netted 14-of-34 shot attempts for 41 percent, but went 0-for-5 from behind the arc. The guests were also 6-of-11 at the charity stripe for 55 percent.
Beam led ZTHS with 10 points, followed by Cameron Evans with eight points and O’Dell with seven markers. Triton Davidson was next with five points, while Swain and Nick Nesser completed the scoring with two points each.
Beam, Nesser and Davidson led the guests with three rebounds apiece.
With a date at the Convocation Center now reserved, Harrison is thrilled that his players have another game to play on the biggest stage in southeast Ohio.
Harrison, however, admits that simply being there isn’t enough — especially for a group that loves knocking down historical barriers.
Gallia Academy’s last district tournament victory also came in 2003 in the final against Jackson. The Blue Devils have played — and lost — in three games at the Convo since.
“Our biggest goal this year wasn’t winning the league, it was getting to the Convo. These kids deserve this opportunity, and now we have it,” Harrison said. “We’ll enjoy this for now, but we cannot be satisfied with just getting there. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.