To win a conference championship, it takes tremendous sacrifice from every single member of a program in order to achieve such a goal.
However, that tremendous sacrifice is only amplified to an even greater extent when an undefeated mark becomes a real possibility in addition to the championship hardware and deep postseason tournament run that is desired.
For the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program, it was about defending and upholding an increasing tradition that has become the norm within its camp. For the Minford Falcons’ girls basketball program, it was about breaking through and exercising the demons that had become very real from the close defeats and losses that had stymied possible conference championship runs and deep postseason tournament showings.
Those two paths, as different as they may be, have meshed together into one common theme — undefeated.
Standing at a combined 41-0 (21-0 for Notre Dame, 20-0 for Minford) as the 2017-18 regular season enters its final days, both programs used either the traditions of yore or the will and desire to start up an entirely new tradition en route to claiming outright SOC I and SOC II titles at a perfect 14-0 — and in dominating fashion, mind you.
For J.D. McKenzie, Notre Dame’s SOC I title — which was the sixth in the last seven years for the growing Division IV powerhouse — is a result of the leadership torch being passed down in a successful manner year after year.
“When you have a lot of good players who work hard, are very coachable, and are just good people, then you can expect good things to happen, and I’m telling you what, we’ve got a bunch of good players and a bunch of good kids,” McKenzie said. “We’ve been really lucky with the types of players and kids that we’ve had. They’re hard workers, they’re great listeners, they’re super coachable, and they’re just super people overall. Good people make good students, which make good employees and leaders. Every year, our seniors have done a great job of leading the younger girls and setting an example that needs to be followed to assure that we can keep on being successful.”
As for Minford, its title-winning SOC II run, much like Notre Dame’s, have come on the backs of a group of upperclassmen — that including starters Erin Daniels, Ashley Blankenship, Caitlyn Puckett, and Marissa Risner, among others who partake in key roles off of the bench — who have longed to start a new, almighty tradition that will carry on year after year.
“We’ve got great leadership,” Caudill said. “We wanted to get some tougher opponents on the schedule in order to get us prepared for the tournament. It’s been a thrilling experience going undefeated (to this point). That wasn’t really a team goal of ours; it was just more about going on a game-by-game basis. This group of girls had never won the SOC II Championship, so that was certainly one of their primary goals, and then the girls, of course, wanted to make a good run in the tournament.”
But as any coach will tell you, it starts with having the athletes to make a run. And both programs certainly have plenty of those at their disposal.
Of the traditional five starters that play for both teams, nine of the 10 girls who start between the two programs are multi-sport athletes.
When you throw in valuable bench hands such as Zoe Doll, Hannah Tolle, and Marissa Watters from Minford, or Ali Smith, Clara Hash, and Cassie Schaefer from Notre Dame — just to name a few — the vast majority of players are not only multi-sport athletes, but gamers who have earned All-SOC honors or All-SOC and All-Southeast District honors in at least one sport in doing so.
“In any successful program, any good coach will tell you that it starts with your players and their ability,” McKenzie said. “Then, after that, you have to set what you are looking for from your players, what you want them to live up to, and the expectations that you have for them. It seems like each of the past four years, we’ve just gotten better and better and better, and during that run, we’ve had a lot of good players.”
“Erin’s a special, special player for us, and you can’t take that away,” Caudill said when asked about Daniels. “I really don’t feel that we have the success of a 20-0 season without her and what she’s accomplished to this point. However, at the same time, if you take Ashley, Caitlyn, Marissa Risner, Maddie Slusher, or any of our role players away, I don’t believe we’d be 20-0, either.”
And with most of these girls having developed a tight bond since they were of adolescent ages, built-in team chemistry — with most of these girls spending at least nine months at a time with each other both inside and outside of school — only makes the respective units in question more dangerous.
“Not one time this year can I look at a girl and say, ‘Hey, she made a selfish play,’” McKenzie said. “That’s awesome to see. You don’t have to worry about selfishness or jealousy and things of that nature. It’s just a great group of girls to be around.”
“It’s a coach’s dream,” Caudill said. “We just have such a great group of kids that are continuing to compete each day. On Tuesday, we had our best practice of the year. From the 11th player to the first player, I felt like we had our most competitive practice across the board in order to try to prepare each other. They just have really bought into the role of saying, ‘Hey, let’s make this run. They’ve really accepted their role now.”
That built-in team chemistry also brings with it an insatiable need to share the rock and find the open player on the floor. Katie Dettwiller may lead Notre Dame with 15.6 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.2 blocks per contest, but the junior is followed by five additional hands who average at least 3.9 points per game, including Lexi Smith, Ava Hassel, Taylor Schmidt, Clara Hash, and Ali Smith. Smith, Hassel, and Schmidt each average at least 8.7 points or more per game along with Dettwiller, while Hassel and Molly Hoover each have at least 3.8 assists per contest or more. Schmidt, Hassel and Hoover each have 2.9 steals or more while Dettwiller and Smith each have obtained at least 8.8 rebounds per affair.
“The difference between this team and some of the recent teams in memory is the fact that we are so balanced,” McKenzie said. “On a lot of past teams, we’ve had one or two big scorers, one big rebounder, and one consistent presence in every facet of the game on down the line. These girls here are doing everything. Katie passes the ball extremely well. We’ve got great guard play and just a lot of balance. On most nights, we’ve got four or five girls that are capable of dropping 15 or more points, and you’ve got four or five girls that can get you double-digit rebounds, double-digit assists, or double-digit steals.”
While Notre Dame’s success has been part of an ongoing theme that the Lady Titans have put together, Minford found the going a big together in the SOC II realm. The year before Caudill’s arrival, Minford finished just 9-9 over the 2014-15 campaign and lost eight more affairs in Caudill’s first season in 2015-16 with a young roster.
But after starting the 2016-17 season at a middling 3-3 overall, Minford won 16 of its last 19 affairs to finish 19-6, and hasn’t looked back since, with a lone SOC II loss to Wheelersburg on Jan. 16, 2017 being the only blemish on the conference record since Dec. 5, 2015.
“We have had some tough losses in the SOC,” Caudill said. “We have taken tough losses in the tournament. Our kids have battled through those. You hate close losses like the ones that we’ve experienced, but the kids have really learned from those experiences and are able to capitalize on those experiences throughout the course of a game.”
That is due, in large part, to the maturation of its core — and its ability to stay balanced. While Daniels — who is destined to become the school’s all-time leading scorer when the 2017-18 season is over — leads the team in most categories, she has been joined by as many as three additional teammates in double-figures during a contest.
“Our girls are playing with a higher basketball IQ,” Caudill said. “They make better decisions in live action, especially during the end of a game. They understand how to control the clock. This year, more than any other year by far, the girls are pulling the ball out and are looking to make the extra pass instead of forcing things in the manner in which has been done in the past. I’m very confident going into fourth quarters based off of the intelligence that our kids have gained over the last few years.”
But make no mistake about it, the young ladies at both schools are competitors. Practices have become so intense, as a matter of fact, that both coaches have said that the practices themselves are harder that some of the tests that they face every other night from other opponents.
“If you came into our practice two days ago, you would’ve thought that we hated each other,” McKenzie said. “We were flat getting after each other, and that’s great because it’s something that we emphasize. We’ve got to be tough on each other every day in practice and try to make practices harder than the games. A lot of coaches say that and want that, but when you truly see that your practices are harder, more difficult, or more intense than the other team that you are playing, it makes things easier when you go out there and play, especially against great competition, and I’ll tell you what, our younger girls and our junior varsity teams have done a tremendous job of giving us a great look every day, while our varsity girls have done a great job of showing up every day and giving A-plus effort to ensure that when we go out there, we’re going to be ready.”
“We’re able to see stiff competition every day in practice,” Caudill said. “The girls off of our bench can play, but when they don’t get a lot of playing time, they are huge components to our success because they are able to provide pressure for us. It is almost a game-like scrimmage every day in practice.”
And with both units playing their best basketball at the right time, it’s very possible that those tough practices could very well pay off into some serious hardware come March.
“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” McKenzie said. “I couldn’t be more proud or excited with the girls this year and what they’ve accomplished so far. I hope that they can have a great tournament run, end this season on a good note, and feel somewhat satisfied with what they were able to accomplish.”
“These girls are still having fun,” Caudill said. “They’re still bouncing. They’re still eager to come in and get better.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT