Eugene, Cardinal Ritter meet in quarterfinal featuring top teams

Travis Kempker and the Eugene Eagles will take on Cardinal Ritter in the Class 3 quarrterfinals tonight in Moberly.

Travis Kempker and the Eugene Eagles will take on Cardinal Ritter in the Class 3 quarrterfinals tonight in Moberly. Katie Alaimo

It’s a game better suited for a state championship.

Instead, the top-ranked Eugene Eagles (26-1) and second-ranked Cardinal Ritter Lions (23-6) will do battle in a Class 3 state quarterfinal game at 7:45 p.m. today at Moberly Area Community College.

A Eugene win would deliver the Eagles their first Final Four appearance since 1992.

“It’s been an amazing run,” Eugene head coach Craig Engelbrecht said. “Starting off the year with so many returning starters coming back, we felt like we had a good nucleus. But I think everybody is surprised by how well we’ve played up to this point. It’s been a magical run.”

Eugene certainly has its work cut out for itself. Don’t let Cardinal Ritter’s five losses fool you — two of the losses have come to Chaminade and C.B.C., the top two teams in the Class 5 state rankings, and both were by single digits. Two more losses came to McCluer North, a team receiving votes in Class 5.

But Engelbrecht believes the Eagles’ schedule, which included a trip to the Nixa Invitational, has prepared them for this moment.

“That’s what we hope,” he said. “It’s kind of like at school where you give assignments leading up to the big test. We feel like we’ve played a number of really quality teams this year, and going down to Nixa, I think we can draw upon that and not be as in awe of Cardinal Ritter because we’ve played some good competition. We hope that the boys will take what they’ve learned from those games and will implement it in our quarterfinal game.”

Cardinal Ritter has won six straight games, including its first four postseason games by an average margin of 23 points. The Lions light up the scoreboard to the tune of 70.1 points per game. Sean Clancey leads the way with 22.3 ppg and 6.5 rebounds per contest. Jahmourie Robinson tosses in 13.5 ppg, while Charles Jones adds 11.8 ppg.

“I know they’re very athletic, very quick to the basketball,” Engelbrecht said. “We like to run, and we’re going to have to go out and get some good shots.

“We’re going to have to keep them off the backboards. I think rebounding is going to be just a huge key in this game for us. They’re a very explosive team, but they’re also very controlled. They can play both styles. It’s going to be a fun matchup.”

Eugene can score quite a bit, too. The Eagles average 75.1 ppg, led by Cody Shaw’s 18.7. The senior point guard scored 33 points in Eugene’s 73-69 sectional win Wednesday against Palmyra, breaking the school’s career scoring record. The previous benchmark was held by Jesse Crum, who tallied 1,631 points during his career that ended in 2003. Shaw now sits at 1,644 points with at least one more game to go.

“He’s just provided so much leadership this year beyond his ability to get into the lane and create shots for other people and the ability to score the ball himself,” Engelbrecht said. “And he’s just such a good free-throw shooter. He’s got all the intangibles you look for in a point guard. He’s just been tremendous all year long.”

But Shaw isn’t the only one who can score for Eugene. Twins Tyler Kempker (13.1 ppg) and Travis Kempker (10.2 ppg) are also in double figures, while Chase Dickerson (9.3 ppg), Drew Geritz (7.9 ppg) and Cameron Massman (7.7 ppg) aren’t far off. Austin Russell scores 5.4 ppg as a starting guard.

“I think the key to our team this year has been the fact that somebody in every game has stepped up and delivered,” Engelbrecht said. “We’ve had multiple people.”

A school of 245 students, the Eagles have exceeded almost everybody’s expectations. And they have the whole community behind them.

“The community right now is really fired up about the way we’re playing,” Engelbrecht said. “… It would mean a lot to our student body (to go back to the Final Four). The kids don’t really know what all is going on with playing in a sectional game and playing in a quarterfinal round with a chance to play in the Final Four. It would be good for our younger kids to see that.”

Eugene is just one win away. But win or lose, there’s no doubting what kind of season it’s been.

“This is just a special group,” Engelbrecht said. “They’ve played well together. We kind of started this journey back in junior high and put together the pieces on the team. They’ve kept playing together all these years and it’s just been a fun team to work with.”

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