The loudest ovation Wednesday night was for a player who was not present.
Only Ryan Stover’s No. 25 jersey was there, draped over a bench seat. But his spirit continues to touch so many in a tightknit Galt community that embraces its sports and youth.
Losing a beloved teammate and friend on the eve of the season to a heart attack cast a pall over the Liberty Ranch High School boys basketball program. The best way to cope, players and coaches maintained, was to play with added purpose.
The Hawks shook off sluggish first-half shooting, with coach Josh Williams letting them have it good and loud in the locker room during intermission, and coasted to a 67-45 victory over visiting Anderson of the Northern Section in a CIF Northern California Regional Division IV playoff game.
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The Liberty Ranch student rooting section, packed in next to a large painted banner that read, “Play for Ryan,” roared when Stover’s name was announced before the game. The students and others in the packed gym collectively recognized the 6-foot-2 senior forward and quasi-assistant coach who was taken off life support Nov. 29, a day after his 18th birthday.
Star Hawks player DeAndre Stallings suggested to Williams that the team rally around Stover’s memory. The jersey has been a fixture for every game, home and away. Stover remains on the roster and in the scorebook. On Senior Night on the eve of the playoffs, the loudest, most emotional cheer went to the parents who had no senior to greet them at midcourt. Bridget and Kenny Stover were at that game, hugging all comers, but they do not attend all of the games because the death of their son has been too difficult to bear.
“We think of Ryan Stover every day,” said Stallings, a 6-6 wing who scored 21 points and had eight rebounds for Liberty Ranch, which plays at top-seeded Marin Catholic in Kentfield on Saturday. “He’s still sitting there, every game, with us. He’s watching us play.”
At halftime, Williams brought up Stover, reminded his players this was the final home game of the season, regardless of the outcome, and urged them to intensify their effort.
“I talked about Ryan Stover, what he means to us, that this was it for us at home and these seniors and to go out and play like we’re capable of, and we did,” Williams said.
“So many of these kids were close to Ryan. Grew up with him. You don’t prepare for something so sad like this to happen. How do you run practices? Do you push them like before or take it easy? We did it by feel, and we came together.”
Williams paused, then continued.
“Absolutely proud of these guys. The second half, the way we played, is why I fell in love with this team. We’ve battled adversity all season. We lost Ryan, then had an 18-game winning streak, then fell short in league play, then fell short in the (Sac-Joaquin Section) finals, then had a slow half here. But we always come back.”
Senior guard Jordan Windley scored 20 points for Liberty Ranch (27-5) against Anderson (23-7). Three other Hawks mainstays, brothers Garrison and Isaiah Halsey and Corey Potthoff, were active on both ends of the floor.
Another source of inspiration comes in the gritty, everyday efforts of Zach Justice. A senior guard and tri-captain, Justice was an all-league guard a year ago but nearly gave up basketball this season as he battled Crohn’s disease, an intestinal/digestive disorder that can leave one fatigued to the point that getting out of bed is a chore.
Williams, in a genuine gesture of character and loyalty, starts Justice at the beginning of each half in an effort to let him feel a sense of normalcy and importance.
“He deserves it,” the coach said. “I’m loyal to my guys, and he’s gone through so much. He never complains. He throws it all out there on the floor every day for his teammates and for Ryan Stover.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.