By Tyler Schneider
Heading into Friday night’s road matchup at Excelsior Springs (5-14), Feb. 3, the Ruskin Eagles boys basketball squad has won seven of their last nine games en route to their current 12-7 record under first year under head coach and alumnus, Marcus Whitney.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Ruskin’s quest to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Greater Kansas City Suburban Conference Championship began on the Eagles’ home court, where the boys put away a struggling Kearney (5-14) team 75-50.
If they are to succeed in their effort to four-peat, the Eagles will depend a great deal on the leadership of senior captain, George Pledger, who is the lone returning starter from last year’s team that finished 16-11 and qualified for the second round of the MSHSAA Class 5, District 7 postseason.
Despite a 5-5 start to the season through Dec. 2022, Ruskin has been on fire since the New Year began. The catalyst for this surge came in a massive home game against crosstown rival Center. When the final buzzer rang, the Eagles came out on top, 47-41, to deliver the Yellowjackets (12-4) their third straight loss following an initial 6-0 start to their season.
The boys followed that up with a padded win at home over Lincoln College Prep (5-13) on Jan. 6, Ruskin went on to just barely fall, 53-50, to a talented Blue Valley team on Jan. 10.
The following week, Ruskin came to the Lee’s Summit “Summit Grill Shootout” Tournament looking to make some serious noise, and succeeded. Playing against a larger school, the Class 6 Rock Bridge Bruins, the MHSAA Class 5, District 7 Eagles stifled a comeback from the third-seeded Bruins to take the game 51-49 from the sixth-seed position.
Ruskin came out and outscored Rock Bridge, 20-7, just after the second quarter began. The Bruins woke up late in the game to claw themselves out of the hole for a 47-43 lead in the fourth, but the Eagles would hold on to give the Bruins their third loss of the season.
The Eagles advanced to the next round, where they dropped another Class 6 school, the Raytown Bluejays, 64-57. In the championship game, ranked Class 6 powerhouse Lee’s Summit West (17-1), ended Ruskin’s run in a dominating, but not wholly unexpected 71-32 trouncing.
One player who has stepped up in crucial moments during that span has been senior point guard Devonte Watson. After rising to a starting role following some early season injuries, Watson played well enough in the Lee’s Summit Tournament to be named to the All-Tournament Team.
In addition to Pledger and Watson, junior Pierre Smith has found a niche as the team’s leading scorer. Another key has been JaQuan Smith, who Whitney said has worked hard to improve his grades in order to be out on the court with his teammates.
The quest for a fourth straight conference title will continue in a pair of key matchups at Grandview (10-5), Feb. 7, and back home versus a formidable Smithville (14-6) squad, Feb. 10.
“Our goals for the Ruskin boys basketball team is to repeat the same performance and continue to be the conference champions. A District Title is on the radar, and still the ultimate goal is to win the Missouri state basketball championship,” Whitney said.