SOUTH WEBSTER — Intense rivalries between two solid programs usually make for the best kind of early season matchups.
If one doesn’t buy that logic, just ask the players and coaching staffs present for the South Webster Jeeps’ and the Wheelersburg Pirates’ girls basketball programs, because they certainly put on a heck of an opening act that showcased how strong the rivalry, and the entire SOC II, can be for the 2017-2018 season from top to bottom.
The duo, who have spent more than their fair share of time in fierce battles at the top of the SOC II standings, engaged in another heavyweight bout on Monday evening inside the confines of South Webster High School as the returning backcourt duo of Wheelersburg’s Abbie Kallner and Ellie Ruby went toe-to-toe with one of the best backcourt-frontcourt pairings in the Southeast District in South Webster’s Ellie Jo Johnson and Madison Cook.
However, after 14 total ties and lead changes, it was the Lady Jeeps who emerged victorious as an 11-0 second half run, along with a 22-point, 11-rebound, and six-assist effort from Johnson and a 12-point, nine-rebound showing from Cook, were enough to lift South Webster to an impressive 51-44 victory over Wheelersburg as the Lady Jeeps defended “The Village” for the second time in as many games to start the season.
For Kristie Johnson, the victory was certainly gratifying, especially considering how the ‘Burg-South Webster rivalry has evolved into a fever pitch with both schools sitting near the top of the SOC II standings in most of the sports that they field.
“Wheelersburg’s always tough,” Johnson said. “They graduated a lot last year, but we knew that they had some freshmen that would come in and make a big impact for us. (Kaylee) Darnell and (Ellie) Kallner are really talented freshmen. Dusty (Spradlin) did a great job of keeping fresh bodies in the whole time, and we stuck with our core as much as possible. It’s a huge rivalry. Huge. The Wheelersburg-South Webster games are the big games. It’s almost like the Ohio State-Michigan game. People don’t really care how you’re doing, just if you’re beating Michigan. The same thing applies here. It was a very exciting, great game. I’m proud of our girls and how they worked to get this win.”
But even in defeat, it was hard for Dusty Spradlin to find much to be disappointed about, especially considering the amount of energy that his young Wheelersburg team put together during the contest.
“I felt like our kids played with tremendous effort,” Spradlin said. “It got away from us a little bit there in the third quarter. We came back in the fourth quarter and really played with great energy and toughness. South Webster just has so much experience. We have two starters returning, and we have girls still trying to grow and learn new positions. They had all five starters returning. With that, we were really thrilled with the effort that we got from our girls. We just need more experience.”
Over the first two minutes and 45 seconds of the contest, both units did an excellent job clamping down the opposing unit’s offensive attack as both teams played to a scoreless tie over the first several minutes of the affair.
But as the first quarter wore on, it was Wheelersburg who would jump out to an impressive attack. Behind the efforts of Kaylee Darnell — who scored Wheelersburg’s first five points en route to an eight-point output in her first ever varsity game — and five additional points from Kallner, the Lady Pirates jumped out to a 12-5 advantage with 1:02 left to play and firmly held the point behind its 12-6 first-quarter cushion by using a ball-control offense and scrappy defensive effort that effectively played the passing lanes while denying Johnson of the basketball.
“We were so good at playing with patience in the first quarter,” Spradlin said. “We were patient offensively, we held the ball for long periods of time, and we were able to make some shots.”
However, South Webster, behind the leadership of its upperclassmen, came right back in the second quarter with a punishing offensive attack on the low block, as Cook, a 5-11 junior, and Johnson, the 6-2 Morehead State signee, got busy posting up Wheelersburg defenders.
The pair, who finished with 34 points and 20 rebounds on their own on Monday evening, obtained 13 of South Webster’s 17 points in the second quarter alone as the Lady Jeeps rallied from a seven-point deficit to take a 23-21 advantage at halftime behind an Avery Zempter jump shot from the left wing with less than a minute to play in the first half.
“Maddie (Cook) did such a good job inside,” Johnson said. “She’s just so hard to guard inside, and we knew that her post presence was going to be huge against Wheelersburg. Our goal was to do what we could in order to break their defensive pressure and feed the ball inside.”
The pair’s efforts, however, were just a precursor for what was to come. After Leann Spradlin knocked down an open three ball to give Wheelersburg the lead back at the start of the third quarter, Johnson and Cook took over again. First, it was Johnson with a low-post basket. Then, it was Cook with a block on the defensive end.
On the next offensive possession, Cook nailed a wide-open trey from the left wing, then came down on the following offensive possession and nailed a three from the left corner. Finally, after grabbing yet another board, Cook found Kaylee Hadinger in transition, who proceeded to hit a three from the left wing, and just like that, South Webster had turned a one-point deficit into a 34-23 lead, forcing Spradlin to burn a timeout.
“Basketball is such a momentum sport,” Johnson said. “When ‘Burg went to that zone coming out, we knew that if we were going to take advantage of that, we were going to have to get players in the right spots to get clean shots off, and we hit some.”
“In the third quarter, we didn’t locate their shooters,” Spradlin said. “Give South Webster credit. They knocked down four threes right there in a row in that third frame. We compounded that problem by taking a quick shot and turning the ball over, and before you know it, they’re up 10 instead of up by one. Part of it is inexperience on our part. We lost a little bit of composure that. Sometimes, you want to try to match people play-for-play and score-for-score. We just talked to our girls and said, “You’ve got to be patient.”
But after Johnson got into foul trouble and was forced to go to the bench with less than three and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter, Wheelersburg saw an opportunity to strike — and pounced on it.
After another made trey from Zempter pushed the lead back up to 37-26 in favor of South Webster, Wheelersburg, behind the play of Kallner and Ruby, made a fierce rally from the 3:30 mark of the third quarter to the 6:10 mark of the fourth quarter as the duo’s quickness and relentless attacking on both ends made the Lady Jeeps’ efforts to get the ball up the floor a difficult one at times.
Behind the pair’s efforts, along with the relentless defensive play of Darnell and Ellie Kallner — the latter also participating in her first varsity affair — Wheelersburg answered with a 13-4 run that saw the Lady Pirates cut the lead to a 41-39 margin with 4:24 to go in the contest.
“It’s so different to jump from the junior varsity ranks to the varsity level, especially when South Webster has the experienced talent like they do,” Spradlin said. “They’ve been there before. So I was really proud of the way that both of our freshmen (Darnell and Ellie Kallner) played.”
In that stretch, Kallner, as she was all night, was outstanding. The junior guard scored 17 points, including an amazing and-one finish with her head turned at seemingly a 90 degree angle that helped give the Lady Pirates a huge spark of momentum.
“Abbie’s worked really hard on her game,” Spradlin said. “I thought that she did a nice job. There were a couple of times where she might have forced the issue a little bit too quickly, but she’s a kid that we have to lean on to score. I was really pleased with the way that Abbie played. I thought that she did a good job of trying to attack.”
“Abbie’s a phenomenal player,” Johnson said. “She’s so good at scoring. She can take you off of the dribble and she can shoot. We knew that she would be key, and we guarded her very well, and she still ended up with 17 points. That just shows what kind of a player she is. Ellie is so quick, and you really need to have a step on her. If you give her a step, she’s going to get to the rim or pull it. By putting Ellie on her, we can still give her that step, but have the height to recover and change the shot a little bit. And we couldn’t help too far off because Kaylee, Ellie, and Leann Spradlin are all great shooters. I was really happy with our defensive rotations, our help-side defense, and our quick recoveries.”
But when the big plays had to be made, Johnson, as she did throughout her 27 minutes of playing time, stepped up and made them.
After a pair of free throws from the elder Kallner, Johnson drew a foul and made both free throws on the offensive end, then followed with a critical rebound and putback on her own missed shot that gave South Webster the lead. Ruby followed with a quick bucket after breaking down the South Webster defense to cut the lead down to 45-42 and the younger Kallner made one of two from the stripe to cut the Lady Jeeps’ lead to a possession, but Johnson made four of her five free throws during the last two minutes of the affair, Baylee Cox added a bucket off of a Johnson feed, and the South Webster defense held Wheelersburg to just one point over the final minute and a half en route to closing the game out.
“The thing that I’m more proud of than anything is how our defensive pressure was,” Johnson said. “We really did well on that. They weren’t able to get anything easy. That’s something that we really stressed in practice. We knew that they were going to be quick, and with that, we knew that we had to be quick getting up and down the court. Even in the moments where we struggled breaking their press and turning the ball over, we came down, played solid defense, and kept them from scoring. To be at that point on defense, that’s huge. If we can continue to get better on offense and if we can continue to be patient with the press, we’re going to be just fine.”
“Ellie Jo and Maddie took control of the game and made it hard for us to take the lead there,” Spradlin said. “They were really good from the foul line. I’m happy with the way that we play. There’s things that we need to correct, but as we continue to work and grow, we’ll work on them and recify them. It was a good, hard-fought game, we just came out on the wrong end of it.”
With the victory, South Webster improved to 2-0 on the young season and 1-0 in conference play. However, Johnson isn’t getting too high on that mountain — Waverly, another tough opponent in a strong SOC II league, awaits Thursday.
“We’ve still got a lot of teams left to play, and lot of talent around our league,” Johnson said. “However, it certainly is a morale-booster to come out with a win over Wheelersburg, who has won or shared the conference title four years in a row.”
As for Spradlin, it’s about improving and moving forward as the season goes along. His Lady Pirates will play Minford — a game that was rescheduled from Thursday at 7:30 p.m. to Wednesday so that the members of the Wheelersburg girls basketball team could go to Canton and watch the Wheelersburg football unit in its state title matchup with Pemberville Eastwood — at 7:30 p.m. in a midweek heavyweight matchup.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get to where we feel comfortable, but nobody’s going to be sorry for us,” Spradlin said. “We’re going to have to demand more from ourselves and each other and continue to work hard. The goal is to continue to get better during each practice and each game, and we’ll see where we fall as we get some experience under our belt.”