Five region finals in six years.
In an always competitive Ninth Region, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Now Ryle will have to clear a hurdle they’ve struggled to get by the past season and a half.
With a 69-57 victory over Holy Cross on Friday night at Truist Arena, the Raiders have put themselves a game away from the state tournament, a position they’re all too familiar with, looking for a fourth trip in that six-year span.
Cooper stands in the way. Pretty much all offseason and season long, a lot of talk surrounded who could knock off Cooper this year and how likely it will to be to see a Ryle-Cooper matchup not once, not twice, but three times.
Here we are.
“You can’t help but not think about it. It’s a big rivalry,” Raiders senior Abby Holtman said. “I’m glad that we get to do it on this stage and with our fan base because they’ve been great during this whole tournament. I’m really excited for it.”
Holtman ignited Ryle in a pivotal third quarter on Friday. The Raiders entered the second half with a 22-21 deficit, but Holtman and company knocked down five 3-pointers in the third to build their lead as much as nine in the frame.
First it was Austin Johnson hitting one, then Holtman followed with two, Johnson another and Grace Carrigan joining the three party with one of her own. Johnson followed with a three-point play, making it 45-36 Ryle with 1:28 to go in the quarter.
“Togetherness has been one of our big focuses this year in playing together all four quarters. That comes with boxing out, talking on defense, moving the ball offensively. That was the big thing for us coming out of halftime and into the third quarter. Every possession has to be together and for each other, and I think that helped keep our run going,” Johnson said.
Holy Cross answered with five straight to end the quarter, Aleah Arlinghaus hitting one of her four 3-pointers on the night followed by a DMyah Williams layup, putting it 45-41 as the two headed to the fourth.
A team that’s been in this situation before with five seniors showed no cracks. An 8-0 Ryle run to start the fourth started to put the Indians away at 53-41, a Holy Cross team that’s won 26 games including an All “A” state title.
A couple of broken presses for layups and Quinn Eubank hitting six straight free attempts put the game away for good at 61-48 with under two minutes to play.
Ryle’s strategy to pack things in and help contain Julia Hunt and Nejai Lewis really worked wonders in the second half. After the two combined for nine points and 11 rebounds in the first half, they were held to eight points and one rebound in the second half.
“We just packed it in as much as we could and dared them to shoot it from the outside rather than feed those two. Arlinghaus hit a couple, Wimzie hit one, but I told the girls when you’re playing that way you’re going to have to accept some outside shots are going to hit. As long as it doesn’t continue to be a thing then we wouldn’t have to change. Just stuck to our plans of what we we’re going to do there and it worked out for us,” Raiders coach Katie Haitz said.
Now Ryle looks to do something they’ve failed to in the last four matchups, beat Cooper. Prior to those four meetings, Ryle had won 11 in a row against the Jaguars, including the first two meetings last season.
“For them to get back to where we wanted to be from last year and have the opportunity again to play in this game is huge. It’s huge for them for their confidence, for all the stuff that they’ve done and all the hard work, it’s all paid off. It’s all paid off for this moment,” Haitz said.
The first half was a back and forth battle. The first quarter had five ties and no one leading by more than three as they were tied 13-13 after the first eight minutes of play. Both teams struggled with turnovers, committing eight in the first half, Holy Cross taking advantage early as they scored the first four points of the quarter for a 17-13 edge.
Ryle was held to two points in the first five minutes as Hunt’s layup gave the Indians a 20-15 lead. Hunt had seven rebounds in the first half, five of them on the offensive end.
Ryle bounced back with two free throws from Holtman and a Eubank layup, Hunt and Holtman trading buckets as the half came to a close and Holy Cross holding a 22-21 edge.
“Even though we were winning by one it felt like we missed out on opportunities. We turned them over quite a few times but didn’t feel like we were really scoring off it or taking advantage of it,” Indians coach Ted Arlinghaus said.
Arlinghaus and the Indians posted a banner year. Not only did they win their first region tournament game since 2017, but they will hang a banner in the gym for their All “A” state title, the second one in school history.
“We do get a banner hanging in our gym. So forever and always when somebody walks in the Finn Activity Center at Holy Cross, they’re gonna see their names up there on the wall, and that’s a special year. This was a top 10 team in the state. At the beginning of the year, teams didn’t know who Holy Cross was, well, now they do. And our seniors were a part of that,” Arlinghaus said.
The Indians were led by Hunt with 13 points and eight rebounds, Arlinghaus adding 12 points. Arlinghaus is one of four seniors on the roster along with Lewis, Sarah Bottom and Elizabeth McCoy. They do return three starters in Hunt, Aaliyah Hayes and Miyah Wimzie along with promising underclassmen DMyah Williams and Aumani Nelson.
“When we play as many people as we do, we can go all out. We had nine players that averaged double-digit minutes. This team had that special bond that doesn’t come around very often. The way they were able to sacrifice individually for the betterment of the team this year was awesome to see. A lot of that has to do with our seniors,” Arlinghaus said.
Holtman’s 22 led Ryle, knocking down 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Eubank added 19, hitting 9-of-10 free throws and grabbing nine rebounds to go with three assists and three steals. The free throw discrepancy was a big one, Ryle hitting 20-of-23 attempts, Holy Cross 10-of-20.
Johnson poured in 12 points while Sarah Baker added 10 points and nine rebounds, part of the front line that helped neutralize Hunt and Lewis.
Now they get less than 24 hours to prepare, facing Cooper for the seventh time in the last two seasons.
“The girls need to stay focused on what’s the task at hand. When we get that opportunity than we’ll go for that opportunity. We had to make sure we took care of business first with whatever game we’re at. The girls know we’ll do our job and have them ready and prepared and talk about the situation and what will go on. They’re used to that transition and focusing on each specific team,” Haitz said.
The Ninth Region championship will begin at 7 p.m.
RYLE — 13-8-24-24 — 69
HOLY CROSS — 13-9-19-16 — 57
Ryle (69) – Holtman 22, Eubank 19, Johnson 12, Baker 10, Carrigan 3, Jones 2, Warner 1
Holy Cross (57) – Hunt 13, Arlinghaus 12, Wimzie 9, Hayes 8, Williams 6, Lewis 4, Bottom 3, Nelson 2