WHEELERSBURG — Four high school girls basketball teams looking to achieve the same goal will meet during the Division III state tournament at the University of Dayton Arena for the state semis on Friday and the state championship on Saturday.
Wheelersburg, Columbus Africentric, Doylestown Chippewa, and Castalia Margaretta — all of which who won their respective regional tournaments over the weekend — need two wins to write their names in their school and the OHSAA history book as 2022-23 D-III state champions.
Just one of these programs, the Wheelersburg Lady Pirates led by coach Dusty Spradlin in his 20th season, is making its first trip to the state tournament.
Africentric last qualified for the state tournament in 2020 before it was ultimately canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Doylestown Chippewa finished as a state semifinalist in 2019 with an overtime loss to eventual state runner-up Waynesville, while Castalia Margaretta won their region and advanced to state for the first time since 2006.
It will be an 11 a.m. tip for the Lady Pirates against the Lady Nubians in their semifinal, followed by Chippewa versus Margaretta at 1 p.m.
In an interview with The Daily Times on Tuesday, Spradlin laid out some of the strengths of this year’s Africentric team.
“The first thing that jumps out is the speed. That’s what I told the girls, the sooner we can get acclimated to the speed the better,” Spradlin said. “The two that really stand out are (Jeniya) Bowers and (Natiah) Nelson. Bowers had a really good game for them, and Nelson was in a bit of foul trouble in the first half and really asserted herself in the second half. She (Nelson) was really good on both ends of the floor.”
Wheelersburg head coach Dusty Spradlin has led the Lady Pirates to their first ever trip to the state tournament in his 20th season at the helm.
Courtesy of Terry Stevenson, burgsports.com
The two Africentric players Spradlin mentioned, freshman Jeniya Bowers and junior Natiah Nelson, earned OPSWA all-Central District first team selections this year. Both averaged 15 points per game for the Lady Nubians.
The Lady Nubians have played all but one game this season without their leading scorer from last year, junior Kamryn Grant who suffered an ACL injury in their second game.
During the OHSAA’s conference call with each coach on Tuesday, Africentric head coach Janicia Anderson said that’s one example of the obstacles her group has overcome in reaching the state stage.
“Excited. We’ve faced a lot of adversity this season. I have one senior on my roster,” Anderson said. “A great team, these young ladies have worked really hard together to get this point with all the adversity we’ve faced. Excited to be here.”
As Anderson said, the lone senior on their roster is point guard Ariel Grace.
The senior heavy aspect of Wheelersburg’s roster, which features seven seniors, is one advantage the Lady Pirates indeed have.
Anderson is an Africentric grad who was an assistant coach former under Will McKinney who led Africentric to two Division IV state titles and five Division III state championships in the program’s first 18 seasons.
She credited Wheelersburg’s appetite for success stemming from their run through the postseason and Region 11 final victory over Portsmouth West.
“They’re a hard working team, first time reaching this point so the challenges we face with them is them being a hungry team,” Anderson said. “Having them beat a conference opponent who beat them twice to get here says a lot about their pride and their hunger.”
Spradlin said one of their main focuses entering Friday’s state semifinal is trying to replicate the pressure that Africentric will bring on defense.
“They played a lot of full court man that game. It’s not something that we haven’t seen, but it’s hard to simulate that speed,” Spradlin said. “We’ve faced speed before, but facing speed at all five positions is something that’s different.”
Wheelersburg’s representative on the OPSWA all-Southeast District D-III first team Makenna Walker, who averaged 10.8 points per game during the regular season, discussed how the Lady Pirates have been preparing for their meeting with the Lady Nubians.
“We’ve been focusing a lot on ball handling under pressure in the full court press they’re probably going to throw at us,” Walker said, “Going north and south instead of east and west so we can get the ball moving better.”
Their second team all-Southeast District player and leading scorer Madison Whittaker (12.9 points per game) said the Lady Pirates need to focus on the small things and continue playing the level of defense that’s gotten them to this point.
“We’ve just got to go into it playing our game, focus on the small things,” senior Madison Whittaker said. “Don’t turn the ball over and play defense like we’ve been doing this tournament run.”
Although it is the first time the Lady Pirate program will compete at the state stage in girls basketball, it won’t be the first time many ‘Burg girls have competed on a state level.
The Wheelersburg softball program has qualified for the D-III state tournament the last two years, winning the program’s second state title last season.
As freshmen, some of the current Lady Pirates were members of the ‘Burg volleyball team who won the program’s first regional title and qualified for the state tournament in 2019.
“We’re trying to feed off of that,” Spradlin said. “We’ve got three girls who were in the state tournament in softball last year. The first trip maybe not as business as you’d like, and then last year they went into it with the mindset of ‘we’re here to win’. Some of the dads were apart of teams who have played at state, Macee’s dad (Jonathan Eaton) and Jocelyn’s dad (Jerod Tilley) were apart of the ‘95 state finalist team. Lots of experiences to draw from and we’re trying to use that to tell the girls what to expect.”
Wheelersburg will no doubt bring a large crowd for the team’s first ever state appearance. Senior Kiera Kennard said the support they’ve received from their neighbors has been felt by the whole team.
Wheelersburg’s cheer block as seen during Friday’s Region 11 final at Logan High School.
Courtesy of Terry Stevenson, burgsports.com
”The support we’ve received from the community is great, we appreciate all of it,” Kennard said.
The winner of Friday’s two Division III state semifinals between Wheelersburg-Africentric and Margaretta-Chippewa will meet in the D-III title game at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, March 11.
Division III State Semifinals
Wheelersburg vs. Columbus Africentric — Friday, March 10 at 11 a.m.
Castalia Margaretta vs. Doylestown Chippewa — Friday, March 10 at 1 p.m.
Division III State Championship — Saturday, March 11 at 5:15 p.m.
All games will be played at the University of Dayton Arena