To learn what it takes to win in the postseason, a unit must first undergo some tough blows in order to receive those said lessons.
Over the past five years, it is clear that the Notre Dame Lady Titans have received a lot of lessons in that department. The consistent win total tells one that much.
This year, however, has shown a vast amount of signs that indicate J.D. McKenzie’s group is ready to break through and obtain that elusive district championship.
First, there’s the results. Notre Dame is 23-1 so far on the year, and completed its third undefeated SOC Division I slate in five years while taking home a dozen of those 14 affairs by double-digits. Its only loss, you ask? A 54-43 loss to a Wheelersburg team on Dec. 22 that finished its season with a 17-3 overall mark of its own.
Then, there’s the blend of experience and youth present on the roster.
Between four-year stars Hagen Schaefer and Catelynn Ball, and the young, but fearless hands of Taylor Schmidt and Olivia Smith, the 2016-17 Notre Dame roster offers up possibilities that make it one of the school’s best units.
That blend of talent and experience, as well as the results that the Lady Titans have brought to the table, has McKenzie believing that this is the year where Notre Dame will get over the demons that have fplaqued them in district play and stand tall above the rest of the crowd in the Jackson I District Bracket.
But first, they’ll have to get past a familiar nemesis in Reedsville Eastern, the 2014 Division IV State Champions, who, along with Waterford, have wreaked havoc across the Southeast District brackets.
“Eastern’s a very good program, and they have been for a long time,” McKenzie said. “We’ve ran into them in postseason play for quite a few years now, so we’re very familiar with them and their personnel.”
And with the ever-solid play that Schaefer is providing, Notre Dame will be in any contest, as the do-it-all star has proven to be a key cog in the Lady Titans’ rotation – on both ends of the floor – over the course of her varsity career.
After averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.9 steals per contest over the balance of the 2015-16 campaign, Schaefer has continued to show off a well-rounded game throughout her swan song campaign. She’s racked up 16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and two steals per game during the 2016-17 season – all while shooting 42 percent from the floor and 34 percent from behind the line.
“Hagen’s been our leading scorer for the last couple of years, and she does a lot for us outside of that,” McKenzie said. “She scores in transition well, runs the floor well, and shoots the ball well from the outside. However, her biggest quality that she brings to the table is her ability to guard people, as she is always guarding the other team’s leading scorer. She is an energizer bunny and never gets tired.”
But while Schaefer may be the main headliner, she’s far from the only threat in a well-balanced attack.
Take Lexi Smith, a junior, and Katie Dettwiller, a sophomore, for example. The pair not only add 6-foot-plus presences in the low post, but produce in large numbers for their size, combining for 22.1 points and 19.4 rebounds per game.
Smith also adds a well-rounded presence to the floor with her 1.6 steals and 1.5 assists per contest on 52 percent shooting, while Dettwiller holds astronomical marks of 66 percent shooting and 3.3 blocks per contest to show off her high potential as a sophomore.
Throw in Catelynn Ball, another big who averages 2.8 points and 2.8 rebounds on 49 percent shooting in limited minutes, and the result is a formidable rotation of low-post players.
“You have Catelynn, Katie, and Lexi, and you’ve got at least two six-footers on the floor the vast majority of the time, so that does pose a lot of problems for other teams,” McKenzie said. “It helps us alter a lot of shots, and gets the opposing team thinking when they get the ball into the lane. We also get a lot of offensive rebounds and second-chance points, which are great. It’s nice having that size in there and being able to do something with it. Those three have been solid for us all year.”
With Dettwiller, Schaefer, and Smith in place on any team, all that a coach really needs are two guards who will do the essential tasks necessary to win basketball affairs.
In Molly Hoover and Taylor Schmidt, McKenzie has those guards in place. Both guards average over five points and two rebounds per contest, but really add another dimension in the passing and defensive departments.
That’s where Hoover and Schmidt really shine at, as Hoover, a junior, leads the team with six assists exactly, while Schmidt, who has starred as a freshman in the lineup, leads the Lady Titans in steals with 3.1 per bout.
“Molly has really stepped up her play this year on both ends of the court,” McKenzie said. “She’s always been a good defender and has always passed the ball pretty well. Last year, she led our team in assists, as well, but she’s doing those things this year, plus, she’s providing a scoring punch for us, and that’s been a big plus for us.
“As for Taylor, she’s had a great year for us. She’s had some ups and downs, as most freshmen do, but you can never tell if she had a great game or a bad game. She’s always even-keeled. She’s done a heck of a job for us, and she’s got a bright future.”
Behind the main quintet, Ball heads up a strong, well-balanced bench. In fact, Clara Hash and Olivia Smith, in addition to Ball, average at least two points per contest or more, which gives Notre Dame plenty of tools from which to work with if one or more of the main starters do get into foul trouble.
With all of the pieces in place, McKenzie knows that Notre Dame can win a regional championship – and he, along with the entire unit, won’t be satisfied unless the Lady Titans do so.
“We’re pleased with the direction of the program,” McKenzie said. “We’ve come a long way in the last seven years from where we were at to where we are at now. We hope to keep that going, but we’re not satisfied with just getting to the district finals. We want to get to the regionals and see how far we can go. Whether we win or lose Thursday, we’re going to keep striving to set a new standard.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter at @ColleyKevin7