WHEELERSBURG — Believe it or not, for this Wheelersburg Lady Pirates’ girls basketball senior group that is a magnificent seven of sorts, it’s been down this road before.
For basketball, no not exactly, but in a world when experience is anything and everything, these seven Lady Pirates — or the majority of them — are already accustomed to the statewide stage.
From freshmen volleyball players, to sophomore and junior softballers, the weeks of Division III state tournament play is not their first —and this weekend’s state basketball extravaganza at University of Dayton Arena may not be their last.
As all seven seniors are indeed part of the Lady Pirates’ deep regular rotation, and throw in sophomores Mia Vastine and Emma Smith, they spent this week practicing and preparing for Friday’s state semifinal —against state tournament traditionalist Columbus Africentric at 11 a.m.
Africentric, the Region 12 winner following Saturday’s 44-35 triumph over Versailles for that final, is in this year at 22-4 —as the Lady Nubians have been a Final Four regular, either in Division III or Division IV, for two decades.
Meanwhile, Wheelersburg, now 25-2, won its first-ever regional championship in the sport —50-41 victors over archrival West for the Region 11 title, which swept the Lady Pirates in the regular season as part of capturing its first-ever Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship.
For these Lady Pirates seniors (Madison Whittaker, Annie Coriell, Kiera Kennard, Jocelyn Tilley, Makenna Walker, Lexie Rucker and Macee Eaton), at least four of them from freshman year in volleyball in 2019 —and first baseman Eaton and centerfielder Kennard from Wheelersburg softball of the past two springs —are used to the limelight and attention of competing in a state tournament.
In fact, this will be Kennard’s fourth state tournament —as the volleyball libero, along with hitters Rucker, Walker and Whittaker, were members of that first-ever regional championship club.
The Lady Pirates’ softball squad won last season’s state championship for Division III —and are a prohibitive favorite for another state tournament trip this spring.
But first things first, the bats and gloves will wait, as it’s about basketball this week —as the Lady Pirates and veteran head coach Dusty Spradlin spoke on Tuesday of their ongoing experience.
“It’s crazy. It’s an amazing feeling,” admitted Whittaker. “We’re super excited.”
“It’s crazy. The support from the community has been great and we really appreciate all of it,” added Kennard. “I think having that experience (of past state tournaments) definitely helps, as far as taking in that big moment and not letting it get too much.”
Spradlin spoke of his seven seniors, and knowing that moments like these don’t get overwhelming for them.
Softball is the most recent example, of course —and don’t forget these seven seniors have won three Southeast District basketball championships, including reaching the regional final for their sophomore campaign.
“We have a couple of girls (Eaton and Kennard) that have been to multiple state tournaments in softball, and they can tell the girls the difference,” said Spradlin. “Maybe the first trip, everybody was excited but not as business-like as you would like. There’s a lot that goes on. But the second time, we’re not just here to be here and happy to be here. We want to go out and perform and win it. They obviously did that last year. You hope they can draw from experiences of not just basketball, but volleyball, softball, soccer.”
The slugger and home run machine Eaton is easily the most decorated of those Lady Pirates, and can attest to that “business trip” from last season’s softball unit.
“We have to keep on trusting each other, and act like we’ve been there before,” she said, following Friday night’s regional championship win over West. “It’s really exciting. I’m so happy that I’m getting to do it in two sports. Now I’ve just gotta win a championship in basketball.”
Speaking of which, Eaton’s father Jonathan — and Tilley’s father Jared —were members of Wheelersburg’s Division III boys basketball state runner-up team in 1995, which lost to Orrville.
“Lots of experiences to draw from, and we’re trying to use every bit of it,” said Spradlin. “Just trying to get the girls acclimated as to what to expect.”
What the Lady Pirates can expect is the Lady Nubians’ full-court attack-mode pressure, primarily man-to-man but also a mix of zone press.
That much pressing requires speed, and Africentric impressed Spradlin with it.
“The first thing that jumps out to me was their speed. The sooner that we can get acclimated to their speed, the better,” said the coach. “They played a lot of full-court man in that game (versus Versailles), and it’s not something that we haven’t seen, it’s the fact that it’s hard to simulate the speed. Facing speed at all positions is something that’s different. Honestly, nobody over the last however many years has pressed us too much, because we’ve had good guard play and some of our kids have moved on to play college ball. Our kids know what to do, it’s just a different style of play. You have to make sure you sharpen passes.”
And, protect the basketball at all costs —which has been the focal practice point this week.
“Definitely practicing against full-court man. We’re going to come in and try and slow it down, because they are a fast-paced team. Hitting shots is really important. I’m going to let the game come to me and just focus on trying to get open and try my best to make them (shots),” said Whittaker. “Gotta go into the game focusing on the small things, playing our game, don’t turn the ball over and play great amazing defense like we have done.”
“We’re going to have to play some really good defense and take care of the ball. All the other things, the shots, they will come, they will fall. But we have to go in ready to play,” said Kennard. “We’ve been practicing handling the ball under full-court pressure, working on things to get open. Just things that will help us in that setting.”
That setting includes the wider and longer floor of University of Dayton Arena, and the different depth perceptions of the shooting background —which vary drastically from high school gymnasiums.
Walker, who was injured in the third quarter of the West game but returned and played with a knee brace, said it’s a battle for simple direction.
She said she has been practicing this week without the knee brace.
She poured in 23 points in the Lady Pirates’ 49-47 upset of 2022 Region 11 champion Union Local in the semifinals.
“We’ve been focusing a lot on ballhandling against pressure, and the full-court press that they’re probably going to throw at us. We’ve been working going north and south rather than east and west, just so we can get the ball moving better,” said Walker. “I have a lot of experience with travel ball, so this will be a lot like travel ball. It will be a lot of one-on-one, and a lot us have played travel basketball. We’re used to that tempo and that pressure.”
Which for these experienced and senior-laden Lady Pirates, the statewide stage is indeed nothing new.
“Having seven of them that have been part of this program for four years, you hope all those little things add up and help a little bit. At the end of the day, you still have to go out and perform —from freshman to senior. We hope that it’s nothing these kids haven’t seen before,” said Spradlin. “I like the fact that are our kids have been on this many big stages.”
It all started this season with Whittaker’s dramatic buzzer-beater back in mid-November —as Wheelersburg won over Worthington Christian at the New Lexington Showcase.
It, hopefully, ends in Dayton with a Division III state championship.