By Thomas Grant Jr.

Following the season-ending loss to A.C. Flora, Ridge View head coach Joshua Staley turned his attention not towards reemphasizing offensive and defensive game plans.

Instead, his focus was on getting the Blazers to “change their mindset.” He especially challenged starting forward Jayden Pretty to take a more mature mental approach both in practice and in the game setting.

The senior forward took his head coach’s words to heart with a dominating performance Wednesday in the Class 4A Lower State final at the Florence Center. He scored 31 points to lead the Blazers (26-2) back to the state finals in a 60-38 win over James Island.

“When A.C. Flora beat us, he changed his mindset,” Staley said. “I’ll just call a spade a spade.  I ain’t going to make it cute for him tonight. He knew one of the reasons why we took two of those Ls was because of his mindset. So he changed his mindset. He’s been very mature in practice, and it’s been good for the team.”

Pretty was the only Ridge View player in double figures. He set the tone offensively on the opening tip, quickly running towards the basket to take the pass for a layup.

Ridge View jumped out to an 11-2 lead and stretched its margin to as many as 13 points in the second quarter. Coincidently, Pretty scored as many points as possible through the first two quarters, at one point outscoring the entire Trojans’ team.

“My coach, (assistant) coach Brian Sanders, he tells me all the time to go hard,” Pretty said. “He tells me face up, drive and go up.”

Ridge View’s defense smothered James Island in holding it to its lowest point total of the season. Staley prioritized challenging every Trojans’ shot attempt, resulting in a 1-15 effort from 3-point range. 

Conrad Linhart made the lone 3-pointer with less than a minute left in the first half. It was part of a 7-0 run by James Island which ended after a Pretty layup before halftime to give Ridge View a 26-18 advantage.

Pretty continued to dominate the paint for Ridge View, scoring six straight points to boost Ridge View’s lead to 36-20 midway in the third quarter. He then broke the game open in the fourth quarter with 11 points as the Blazers took their biggest lead at 22 points.

Ridge View will now make its seventh state title appearance in school history and first under Staley at 8 p.m. Saturday against Riverside. The Blazers are 5-1 all-time in finals, last winning in 2022 in Class 5A.

This is also Staley’s sixth championship game as a head coach at different schools. He joins a list that includes his former high school coach Aric Samuel, John Williams, Louis Golden, Mark Huff and Willie Thomas. 

“I wouldn’t say we were all the way in last year,” Pretty said. “The trust wasn’t all the way there. We had to learn to really believe in our coach because what he says is right. Now, we’re learning that we have to listen to him and follow his rules and we’ll be good.”