WAVERLY — Just over three years ago, the Minford Falcons’ girls basketball program had to deal with a Division III Sectional Final defeat to Fairland that forced Minford to settle for an 8-9 overall record.
Then Scott Caudill came aboard, beginning with the 2015-16 season.
And since that time, the addition of Caudill and his coaching staff, along with a special group of student-athletes, has created for a perfect storm of sorts.
That train, which seemingly hasn’t been halted whatsoever since late December 2016, continued in arguably its finest and most fluid fashion yet on Saturday afternoon in the Lady Falcons’ biggest game of the season to date.
After watching Chillicothe Southeastern jump out to an early 5-0 advantage over the game’s first 2:30, Minford quickly removed all doubt as to how the contest was going to go as the Lady Falcons responded with a spirited, and massive, 16-0 run of its own to take an 11-point lead, and never let the Lady Panthers make the contest any closer than three possessions as Minford held University of Dayton signee Ella Skeens to 21 points on 19 shot attempts while simply putting together a defensive clinic in a dominating 59-39 victory over Southeastern Ross on Saturday evening in the Division III, Waverly II District Finals, which was held in Waverly’s Downtown Arena.
For Caudill, the effort was as impressive from the floor as it was from the near-capacity crowd that was sitting in the stands.
“We wanted to make Ella tired,” Caudill said. “Our goal, at the beginning of the game, was to wear them down as much as possible because we knew that their legs would be gone in the second half without a deep bench at their disposal. We really wanted to pressure all of their role players, force them into turnovers, and just contain Ella. We knew that she would come down and pass the ball off, so by doing that, we wanted to do a good job of ball-denying and keep the ball out of Ella’s hands. The girls executed that gameplan to a tee.”
After jumping out to the early 5-0 advantage, Minford, who struggled with turnovers and missed shot opportunities early on, began to establish a rhythm as the Lady Falcons exploited the size mismatch down low that Blankenship (6-3) had on the tallest player on Chillicothe Southeastern’s frontline (6-0).
The junior’s inside positioning and soft touch, along with a layup by Daniels and a three-pointer by the 5-8 senior, allowed Minford to take the lead away within a matter of a full minute and allowed the Lady Falcons to establish as much as a 16-5 advantage with 2:31 to play in the opening quarter of action. When Skeens finally answered with a big and-one on a jumpshot falling off to the right with less than 15 seconds to play to stop the bleeding, Daniels raced back down the floor and canned a floater from the left side of the free throw line as time expired to give Minford an 18-11 advantage after a quarter of play.
“We knew that we had to give Ashley the ball early on to relieve some of that pressure from the perimeter,” Caudill said. “That’s exactly what the girls did. Southeastern did a good job and held her to two points in the second quarter, but she came alive, and in that third quarter, she went on a huge run for us before picking up her fourth foul. Ashley was just incredible tonight. We did something different than what we normally do by trying to play her out front a little bit and get her more involved in the game.”
In the second quarter, Rachel Collins’ rebound and putback of a missed jump shot by Skeens allowed the Lady Panthers to cut the gap to an 18-13 advantage. However, that margin was as close as Chillicothe Southeastern would come to the point over the rest of the way.
After buckets from Blankenship and Daniels extended the Minford advantage to a 22-14 count, Maddie Slusher put the Lady Falcons back up by double-digits with her open three-ball from the left corner of the floor, and from there, everybody started to get their hand into the pot as Caitlyn Puckett’s four second-quarter points, which all came within a 75-second span, along with the excellent on-ball defense supplied by Makenzie Watters and Livi Shonkwiler — with the former of whom holding Skeens without a basket with her excellent shot contests — allowed Minford to take a 34-19 halftime advantage.
“We got excellent minutes from our starters, as well as everybody who came off of the bench,” Caudill said. “I couldn’t ask for more. Everything that we asked of those kids, they gave us. I’m tickled to death with their effort. I knew that with our bench being as deep as it is, we would have the edge going into the district championship game, and be able to go pretty deep without falling off. When (Southeastern) made their adjustments — even in the second half — we had our legs under us, and we were able to remain under control and play the way that we needed to play.”
When Skeens picked her game up in the third quarter by scoring nine points in the frame off of slick, athletic moves and finishes, Blankenship and Daniels again followed with strong frames. The former finished two layups on runouts where the 6-3 junior simply beat everybody down the floor, and the latter followed with strong, committed play on the offensive and defensive end of the floor. For good measure, the Ashland University signee added yet another floater from a much more difficult angle — this time, on the right side of the floor and with two defenders draped all over her — to put Minford up by a 50-30 tally. Daniels and Blankenship ultimately finished with 22 and 19 tallies, respectively, en route to keeping the Lady Panthers on their heels all game.
“We knew that she was going to try to start taking control on her own end,” Caudill said of Skeens. “We just had to remain under control ourselves and take care of what we could control. By doing that, we knew that a big run by Southeastern wasn’t going to occur. It’s just the way that it is. She could have taken all of the shots that she wanted to, and it still was going to be tough. She’s a very good basketball player. The kids just did a great job against her.”
As time wound down, Skeens and Southeastern made one final attempt at a late-game charge. The 5-11 senior, who scored five straight points in the third quarter to cut Minford’s lead down to a 42-28 margin, again cut the lead down to 14, 53-39, by drawing contact on the left block and obtaining a pair of free throws, then finished inside in traffic with a nifty layup. However, the witty Daniels, knowing that time was on Minford’s side, cleverly drove into the lane, pulled the ball back out, drained time off of the game clock, then beat three defenders to the paint after finding an open space to drive en route to finishing a point-blank layup to put the game away.
“Erin’s such an intelligent player,” Caudill said. “She’s just another coach that we’ve got. That’s actually what we (the coaching staff) talked about at the beginning of the season. You want kids that can coach in the tournament. You want kids that know the game in tournament play. You don’t want to have to call every single play from the sidelines. You have to have kids that know how to make the right decisions, because they can talk to their teammates out on the court. Hat’s off to Erin and the leadership that she brings to us.”
With the victory, Minford (24-1) will face Columbus Africentric (21-3) on Wednesday evening in a Division III, Region 11 Semifinal at a site that is yet to be determined. The Lady Falcons and the Lady Nubians were scheduled to meet in Logan at 6:15 p.m., but the contest, along with its sister Division III, Region 11 Semifinal affair (Fairland and Berlin Hiland) will be relocated to a different site as Logan dropped out of hosting the regional tournament so that the athletic program could host a Division I Boys Basketball District Semifinal between the Chieftains and Westerville South. Waverly has been mentioned as a possible host — but nothing had been made official as of Saturday evening.
Still, Caudill — who has done nothing less than a magnificent job himself with the program churning out 13-8, 19-6, and 24-1 overall records over his first three seasons in a head coaching role — plans to enjoy the win and get back to work the following day — which has proven to be a major key in the success that the program has had to this point.
“It’s great. We’re going to go to Fred’s,” Caudill said, immediately following the victory, “and the girls don’t know it yet, but we’re going to have practice tomorrow.”