Brock Netter, Staff Writer
WAVERLY — John Bonifield knows that when it comes to the annual Pike County Holiday Classic, his Waverly Tigers are always going to have a target painted on their backs.
And over recent years, for whatever reason, the Tigers have struggled in the event. Despite being the biggest school and having a slew of talented players throughout the decade suit up, Waverly always seemed to hit a wall in the December tournament.
“We know that when this tournament comes around, it’s going to be a dogfight,” Waverly coach John Bonifield said. “Whether we play Western, Eastern or Piketon, we’re going to get their best shot no matter what their record is.”
But after years of misfortune, everything turned around last winter when the Tigers claimed their first Holiday trophy for the first time since 2009-10. And on Thursday, they doubled down with a 67-43 victory over Western, making it back-to-back championship seasons.
It seems as if the tables have turned.
“This is all about who represents Pike County and who is the big dog,” senior forward Kami Knight said. “Everyone on every team knows one another. We’re all friends so keeping the trophy here is such a big deal for us and we want to keep it that way. For me, [the championship] is easily the biggest game of the year. I look forward to it every year.”
The victory was even sweeter for Knight, being one of just two seniors alongside Hailey Robinson. Having experienced the losing end of the tournament during her first two years, it makes going out as a two-time winner that much sweeter.
Knight scored 10 points in Thursday’s victory.”There’s a lot of emotions with this victory,” Knight said.
“It’s a little bittersweet since it’s the last time I’ll ever play in it. It’ll be hard coming back next year and watching them, but at the same point I’m happy and excited because there’s nothing like winning this tournament.”
Bonfield has been through ups and downs in his long tenure at Waverly, and he’s quick to credit his seniors for laying the foundation to bring the program back to prominence.
“To win this tournament back-to-back is really a testament to the direction our program is heading in and our senior leadership,” Bonifield said. “Kami and Hailey have been outstanding leaders for this group. They’ve worked incredibly hard and have shown the underclassmen what it really takes to win.”
Along with the leadership in which the seniors bring, the Tigers have relied on the undeniable talent of its sophomore class; one that features Zoiee Smith, Paige Carter and Carli Knight, who are now 2-for-2 in Pike County Holiday championship games.
Carter, who transferred back to Waverly from Eastern, took home MVP honors after dominating the paint and finishing with a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds.
“It’s a great feeling to win MVP. I started out too fast and got tired,” Carter said, laughing. “But I slowed down and continued at my pace.”
Much of Carter’s production was a result of the basketball wizardry of Smith, who compiled a double-double with 13 points and an unfathomable 17 assists.
“I was exhausted after the first quarter and coach told me I had five assists already,” Smith said. “I said, ‘No I don’t, you’re joking.’ But that’s when I knew I had something working. I told myself that I wasn’t turning the ball over and getting that first assist to Paige got the whole game going.”
The loss of Kami Knight and Robinson will certainly force the Tigers to fill holes on both ends of the floor but with a strong class of soon-to-be juniors and a talented group of soon-to-be sophomores, it’s safe to say the best of Pike County runs through Waverly for the foreseeable future.
“We had two games circled on our calendar and this was one of them,” Smith said. “This game sets the tone for the second half of the season for us and now we have to keep this momentum going. But the most important thing is that the Pike County trophy is staying with us for another year.”